10 Ways Amazon Has Changed Customer Service in 20 Years

Back in Amazon's early years, the company was a small yet innovative bookseller, providing little indication that it would one day grow into the e-commerce behemoth that it has become. Today, Jeff Bezos's baby is the largest e-retailer in the United States, generating over $80 billion in revenue as of 2014. Without any brick-and-mortar locations to attract customers and develop relationships, Amazon has had to build its reputation through the effectiveness of its online customer experience and service. The company brought trust and transparency to a shopping experience that was previously considered unreliable, paved the way for an e-commerce boom, and set a standard for customer satisfaction that other brands now abide by. Here are 10 ways that Amazon has transformed customer service.

1. The Proliferation of Customer Reviews

With companies such as Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Uber providing customer reviews on everything from luxury hotels to local food trucks, it's hard to imagine a time when the practice did not exist. Amazon was among the first to display customer reviews and add transparency to the e-retail space. In a world before online reviews, consumers took a risk in making an online purchase, essentially clicking in the dark, not knowing what to expect when a product arrived. Thanks to the open marketplace that Amazon has built, consumers can gauge how satisfied they'll be with a product based on the experiences of fellow shoppers. Plus, every review is a reflection on the brand, and companies are now held responsible for the products they offer in a public way, Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, says.

2. A Real-Time Recommendation Engine 

Amazon has become the king of cross-selling. Though it seems standard in e-retail now, the real-time product recommendation engine was "pioneered largely by Amazon as a means to expose consumers to its vast marketplace," Chip Bell, author and customer service expert, says. Developing personalized recommendations for consumers based on their purchases and browsing behaviors has proven to be an effective strategy for Amazon, Bell says. To expand the scope of its suggestions, the company now even makes recommendations based on what shoppers with similar demographics have bought. "Saying something like 'Customers that bought this also bought that' is powerful because we're influenced by other consumers," he says. By providing recommendations throughout the duration of the customer journey, the initiative feels more like a service element than a sales or marketing push. "The recommendation engine creates a personal experience similar to an in-store interaction. It takes one of the best aspects of an in-store experience—someone making suggestions or pointing out other products you might like—and puts in on the Web site," says customer experience expert Shep Hyken. 

3. Streamlined Checkout

"When you're selling commodities, the best kind of customer service is invisible service," Bell says. Amazon has made it easy for shoppers to browse, search for, and buy products, and continues to deliver new ways to make the process as simple as possible. With One-Click-Shopping, for example, Amazon began automatically populating shipping address, billing address, and payment detail fields by using previously stored information—a feature that many other brands have since adopted. The company is also testing a Twitter buy button that enables consumers to shop directly through brands' tweets. It's tempting to take these features for granted, Bell says, "but making these basic customer service interactions so seamless and streamlined, it frees up customer service representatives to handle more substantial issues," he explains. 

4. "Democratically" Tiered Customer Service     

Tiered customer service is not a new concept. Airlines, for example, have been treating first-class customers like royalty for decades, while the economy-class folks sat in the back with far less legroom and disappointing meal options. What Amazon was able to achieve with Prime, a program made up of member-only service, was strike a unique balance between exclusivity and attainability that feels democratic to consumers, Bell says. "If you shop on Amazon regularly, Prime is affordable, but at the same time, it entitles subscribers to a lot of great services," Bell adds. These services include free two-day shipping, early access to certain sales, ad-free music streaming, and other features. The membership is $99 for most users, and $49 for students. "Amazon has always been a disruptor....With Prime, they're actually getting customers to pay for a loyalty program. Who else does that?" Hyken says.
In honor of its 20th anniversary, Amazon is taking Prime to the next level with the introduction of Prime Day, a one day Black Friday–like sales event exclusively for Prime customers. Pulling it off will require a massive customer service effort, but Amazon is prepared to scale up to provide support to its most loyal customers if they run into issues. From a customer service perspective, "Amazon has built scale in its operations to handle peaks from November to January, and Prime Day is a good test to see whether they can flex their scale in a non-peak time with their excess capacity," Wang says. "It's a smart move and one of many to come." 

5. A Network Economy

Amazon has shown that the "art of the possible can be delivered," Wang says. One of the company's biggest strengths, he says, is that it has been able to build a functioning network economy. "By putting together the content (goods), the network (distribution), and arms (technology), they’ve built an vertically integrated model that gives them digital scale in customer service," he explains.

6. Strategic Shipping Support

"The fundamental shipping advantage Amazon offers to customers is reliability," says Jarrett Streebin, CEO of EasyPost, a shipping API company. "It's not about two day, or same day, but about knowing when the package will be at your door." Among the first companies to implement extensive use of tracking, both internally and externally, Amazon provides customers with a tracking number within hours of purchase and regularly updates customers if packages are delayed. Proactive customer service is key for Amazon's shipping strategy, and the company ensures that customers are constantly aware of the status of their package. If a problem arises, Amazon informs and communicates with customers before customers recognize an issue and reach out to the service department. 

7. Deep Brand-Customer Relationships

Amazon is always ready to "go to bat for the consumer," Bell says. The company stands behind the vendors that sell products on its site, but if something is wrong with the delivery process or the product itself, Amazon will take its customer's side and fight for a desirable outcome. But Amazon is more than just a referee—it's committed to helping brands build relationships with customers through initiatives such as Amazon Exclusives. Similar to crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Amazon Exclusives connects consumers to brands on a deep level, enabling buyers to "become involved with the seller's story and gain a 'behind-the-scenes' look into the manufacturing process," says Chris Tsai, CEO of Celery, a company that provides technology for pre-order processing for crowd-funded products. Through Amazon Exclusives, consumers gain access to "Kickstarter-style videos that highlight each seller's entrepreneurial story and journey to market. [The] customer-centric approach makes buyers feel more connected to who the seller is, and to the product itself," he adds. Developing a personal relationship with a brand from its inception sets a precedent for much more personalized customer service later, he points out. 

8. The Mayday Button

With a growing list of tech gadgets to its name, Amazon provides outstanding customer service not only to its Web site visitors, but also to customers that use its Kindle products. The company debuted a Mayday button on its Kindle Fire tablet in September 2013 to offer users round-the-clock customer support with a live agent with the tap of a button. Though the feature was designed to primarily provide customer support, Amazon agents are happy to do whatever they can in the name of great customer service. A Mayday representative once helped a customer pass a level of Angry Birds after being stuck for a week, while another agent sang happy birthday to a customer's girlfriend after she received a Kindle Fire HDX as a gift, Tech Times reports. 

9. Appropriate Automation

Amazon's empire is vast, and the company employs a massive worldwide workforce of approximately 150,000 people, but humans aren't the only ones responsible for its success. Amazon isn't shy, for example, about using robots to perform some basic customer service functions while agents handle more complicated issues. By relying heavily on customer self-service, tech automation, and even robotics, the company effectively prioritizes support interactions to keep customers consistently satisfied without putting a strain on its employees. For example, as Amazon prepares to handle a sharp surge in customer interactions on Prime Day, the company is putting its Kiva automatic-attendant robots to work behind the scenes in its warehouses to handle order fulfillment and simple order mishaps, while employees prepare to manage customers on the front lines. There are over 15,000 Kiva robots at Amazon fulfillment centers in the U.S., and they've helped reduce order processing time by up to several hours, Yahoo reports.   

10. Unabashedly Innovative Outlook

Though it's still unclear how much truth there is to rumors that Amazon is experimenting with drone delivery, there's no denying that the company isn't afraid to innovate. "They've established a pattern: They do something that no one else is doing, and others start copying them until a tipping point is reached and suddenly everyone is doing it and it becomes the standard," Hyken says. That likely won't change anytime soon, experts agree.
As Amazon enters its 20s, the company isn't showing signs of slowing down. "They're always trying to add value and do something new. Amazon will always be ahead of the curve," Hyken says. And who knows; experts agree that someday soon, drone delivery may become mainstream. "If anyone's going to accomplish that, it'll be Amazon," Bell says.  

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