The innovation formula at Amazon: Going backward from the customer – Part 2


Jeff Bezos stated: “We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for more than 20 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.” Amazon went backward and started with the customer instead of starting from the product itself. This approach plays an important role in the process of developing new products and features, demonstrating the mindset of “customer-focus”. Part two of this article will focus on this aspect.

This “customer focus” thinking is thoroughly applied by Amazon to all employees, even at management level. Senior managers must have two days of “training” at call-centers. Possibly when you call the call-center someday, you’ll meet Jeff Bezos on the other end at one day.

Amazon does everything to understand customers better. The content of surveys is always about whether users feel that products & services are useful to them. Amazon does not simply sell products & services to customers but to help them make the decision to buy products & services.

Amazon has adopted the Andon Cord principle (from Toyota) with products on the e-commerce site. Support agents at Amazon are entitled to “pull” Andon cord when suspecting a problem with a certain item, directly stopping all sales and deliveries before the problem spread to other customers. This approach will reduce the number of returns and customer support. In addition, Amazon has a system of real-time customer experience monitoring indicators, helping to handle problems that arise instantly.

Figure 1. A product was put under review by the Andon Cord process at Amazon.

The next way “going backward from the customer” will take customers as a starting point in identifying customers, finding their needs to come up with different ideas. Then answer five questions to evaluate opportunities:

  1. Who are the customer?
  2. What are the customers’ problems and opportunities?
  3. What is the biggest benefit of customers?
  4. How do you know the needs and wants of customers?
  5. What will experience look like?
Figure 2. Going backward from the customer procedure.

Next, there are three steps to find the identity solutions, select solutions and Refine Solution. In particular, in the process of finding and selecting solutions Amazon has used a technique called “future press release”, which is written concisely in just one page.

Figure 3. Documents supporting the going-backward process from the customer.

The process for the future press release:

  1. Begin with the title indicating the product name (service) and describe what the product will do.
  2. Write the introductory paragraph that outlines the most important details about the product (service), how consumers benefit from it, and the problem solved. Provide specific, clear and bold goals.
  3. Attach quoted company spokesperson and a customer in fiction.
  4. Conclude and briefly explaining how customers can learn more or start using products & services. Point out how the product has overcome challenges and difficulties.
Figure 3. A sample form of Kindle press release in fiction.

Next, Amazon prepared FAQs of customers and related subjects when a future press release was released and answered them seriously. These will be detailed and tricky questions, requiring product team to place themselves in the customer’s position. Customers’ questions will always be the best questions. The questions will be as follows: “How does this product cost?“; “Where can I find it?“…

Finally, determine the customer experience in detail through situations where customers interact with the product. This visualizes the client’s interaction with the product as prototypes, or mock-ups that simulate customer interaction. From there, write the user manual for customers to use the product details to indicate what the product is and how to use it.

These documents will be used to get insights from customers in a timely manner and fine-tune the product. Going backward from the customer will help the product team visualize the most difficult problems when launching the product.

The products above are special characteristics of written culture in Amazon. Do you think speaking culture is important? Please think again. For Amazon, it’s important to be able to write down your ideas explicitly, in a structured format, and concise. So Amazon banned using PowerPoint at its meetings.

This view suggests that PowerPoint slides will lose profoundness and deep quality. Instead, the presentation team will write a six-page concise memo. The members attending the meeting will spend time at the startup of the meeting to read it silently. Then each member will share their ideas, the team leader will share the final and the group will discuss the shortcomings and focus on the possible issues. Through the implementation of this meeting, members will have to work together beforehand to produce an explicit, coherent memo.

Figure 4. Letter from Jeff Bezos banning using Powerpoint.

The process above of Amazon supports making the product with customer thinking in mind, thereby improving the customer experience better. Part three of the article will discuss more the organizational structure at Amazon.

Hoang Nam Le – FPT Ventures

What is the innovation formula at Amazon? – Part 1
Innovation formula at Amazon: “Amazon is the best place in the world to… fail” – Part 3

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