Over the years, the culture at Amazon is one where the customer comes first. Always. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos leads by example and there are numerous stories where he rights wrongs at any cost. He’s been so transparent with Amazon customers to the point where he even makes his email address publicly available: firstname.lastname@example.org. If he receives a legitimate complaint, he forwards it to the employee who’s responsible, with one simple character:
With that, the employee knows to fix the problem ASAP. It’s treated like a “ticking time bomb,” according to Businessweek’s Brad Stone.
Amazon has made it clear: its brand and its service stands for doing the right thing. It’s trustworthy. It’s reliable.
But, there’s a line that Bezos has drawn: great service does not mean that Amazon will take false accusations lying down.
This has become glaringly apparent with two recent events.
1. Bezos’ Response to the New York Times article. In case you missed it, in August 2015, the New York Times ran an article that highlighted Amazon’s culture, citing reports of people crying at their desks, emails being sent well into the night and the use of conflict to drive innovation. The headline blasted, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Ideas in a Bruised Workplace,” openly setting up a story that was meant to contribute to the ongoing conversation about work-life balance in innovative environments.
Bezos responded within 24 hours with a company-wide memo to employees, explicitly denying the Amazon depicted in the Times article. He even asked employees to report any type of behavior that did reflect what was depicted in the error-riddled article directly to him.
Does Bezos expect excellence? Yes. To the point that employees with cancer are accused of not being productive enough? No way. He’s on board with what Harvard Business Review calls one of the “Four Things a Service Business Must Get Right”: his employees should embody the service attributes the company wants to be known for.
As the leader – a very high-profile leader at that – Bezos has the responsibility to set the tone for how employees are managed. Where the bar is set for “excellence” and what’s expected to get there.
2. Amazon’s suing faux reviewers. Shortly after the New York Times debacle, in October 2015, Amazon announced that it was suing more than 1,000 people who were offering fake reviews for merchants in exchange for money.
This move could be perceived as a strategic brand management or PR move; to tell the world, “Hey, we’re the good guys and we don’t tolerate businesses that would mislead customers.” And it worked: Forbes even listed the decision to use fake reviewers as a lesson of what not to do if you’re selling a product.
More likely than not, though, this move had been in the docket for some time, with Amazon gathering the facts they need to pursue litigation. They even previously sued other websites in April, most of which had been shut down by the time this second wave of suing came around. Strangely enough, though, media coverage for the October suits seemed to be a bit heavier than the coverage for April.
To some extent, this approach is an attempt to manage the customer; to make it clear that any inauthenticity would not be tolerated. Amazon is saying to the customer, "No, we’re not going to just deactivate your account. We’re going to literally make you pay for the damage you’ve done to our brand and service reputation."
This approach is also a way to manage the offering – the core of Amazon’s service – what they do really, really well – is a trusted marketplace. That’s what customers want; that’s why its design has worked and how it became to be known as “The Company That Ate the World” by Bloomberg.
Amazon’s Employee and Customer Management Moving Forward
Other moves have been made recently, too, that could be chalked up to damage control for the Times article, like adding new perks for workers. Perks like 20 weeks of paid time off for new mothers and up to six weeks for new fathers. These perks, according to Amazon, had been in the works since early 2015, way before the incriminating article.
Regardless of intentions behind these moves, Bezos and company are making it clear that Amazon’s offering is simple: it’s a transparent, fair service that works to create an easy, trusted environment for buyers and sellers to meet. And he’s making it clear that Amazon employees are the best of the best, and so yeah, he does expect excellence, but Amazon is no Goldman Sachs, limiting intern workdays to a ridiculous 17 hours. And doesn’t want to be.
Are these events strategically connected? Maybe. Are they reflective of Amazon’s leadership? Absolutely. Bezos is making it crystal clear that he’s in control, and he’ll be damned if his life’s work is dragged through the mud.