You Call This Service?

Business Week’s 2009 Customer Service Issue (2/19/09) names as the customer service champ of the year.

I’m a customer of Amazon and buy a couple of times a month through them. Still, they don’t come to mind when I hear the term “customer service.” Theirs is a robotic business in which the delivery is, as much as they can make it, untouched by human hands or voices.

Is this yet another case of “Less Is More.” Does it illustrate the power of invisibility? Or is it yet another case of radically reduced expectations?

Unlike a Nordstrom, LLBean, a good garage, favorite coffee shop, or the Apple store, there is no immediate experience of being served let alone well served.

“Service” for Amazon is designing processes, which are both robust and comfortable for the customer. The goal is to create reliability and reduce cost there by delivering superior value. It also teaches shoppers and changes their behavior such that both their expectations and demands are different.

An extended definition of service in Amazon’s world might contain components such as:

  • Finding products – Here Amazon excels. Why don’t libraries allow you to find something so easily instead of merely automating the old fashioned card catalog?
  • Shipping – The availability of free shipping on many products could be thought of as part of the service. This is fine, yet arrival time is unpredictable.
  • Recommendations – The knowledgeable store clerk is increasingly rare. Amazon does make suggestions on its home page. This seems to be based on my prior searches and misses the mark by a wide margin. Its customer reviews, which are a form of social networking, can be helpful. They are a feature not found when shopping in a physical store. Indeed the potential for Amazon customers to form community offers the intriguing potential for them to transform the shopping process.
  • Returns – Yes you can make them, but Amazon makes you hunt and click to find out how. The return policy is an adequate standard 30 days subject to conditions. Amazon does not facilitate this, presumably by design. It pales when compared to merchants, who guarantee satisfaction by taking returns, period.
  • Conversation – you can exchange messages by email, chat and even phone by entering your number in a form and requesting a call back. If the shopping process is a way of connecting with people, I can recommend a great local bookstore.

Since you’re reading a blog, you’ve probably shopped at Amazon and can decide for yourself whether they are service champs. Perhaps a more significant award is that their sales continue to grow in a very poor economy. Amazon has been continuously improving its process to deliver a vast array of goods at competitive prices. Service Champ or not, its nice that so much of what we need is a click away.