Disclosure: I’m an unabashed Amazon fan. Not only is it one of the most aggressive, forward-thinking and best-led companies in tech, it’s also the beating heart of the Seattle tech scene. The comments that follow are offered out of deep respect and a sincere desire to see Amazon dominate the *next* decade of the digital economy.

I interact with Amazon.com all the time — as a customer, as a supplier, and — not as often as I’d like, but enough to keep me coming back for more — as a partner.

These interactions are uniformly excellent — crisp, smart, decisive, clear and direct. But they always leave me wanting more. And I’m worried that I’m not alone.

Poet and writer Maya Angelou captured the missing feeling better than I ever will:

People will forget what you said
People will forget what you did
But people will never forget how you made them feel.

Amazon is excellent at so many things, but as my partner Andy says about people with poor emotional intelligence, the company has “bad interface” — they always deliver the goods, but there’s no human warmth in the interaction.

Amazon doesn’t make you feel anything at all. 

Jeff Bezos has said that this robotic experience is a feature, not a bug — here’s his response to Wired’s question about the cultural impact of the Zappos purchase:

Wired: In 2009, you bought [US clothing etailer] Zappos. Was that a bid to absorb their “culture of happiness” and customer service?  

Bezos: No, no, no. We like their unique culture, but we don’t want that culture at Amazon. We like our culture, too. Our version of a perfect customer experience is one in which our customer doesn’t want to talk to us. Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect.

The first rev of the consumer web was all about connecting people to information — Amazon, Google, and Yahoo made it easy to search, learn about and purchase almost anything in the world. And we loved them for it.

Chris Devore

But human beings don’t just want data. They need more than stuff. What they crave most of all is human connection.

The current winners on the web are companies that make those human connections happen. Facebook and Twitter are the dominant platforms, but nearly every service that has captured customers’ and investors’ imaginations in the past five years — firms like LinkedInZyngaFoursquareEtsyKickstarterPinterest — is built around the power of connecting people with people.

Amazon has dabbled with adding “social” layers to their products — Business Insider called their Facebook integration “the future of commerce” (and they were probably right), but if this feature still exists it’s pretty hard to find…

Amazon is now making a huge bet on digital media — a category where word of mouth has always driven sales and “social discovery” (via Twitter and Facebook shares) is becoming the default way to find new titles.  But — to take just one example — the native “social reading” features in the Kindle platform are so buried and poorly implemented that it took an unauthorized 3rd-party startup — a Steven Johnson/Betaworks collaboration called Findings– to finally deliver a credible offering.

I know Amazon has the intellectual and engineering capacity to build a truly excellent social experience, so this isn’t a failure of execution. It’s a failure of will.

The only plausible explanation for the “empathy gap” in the Amazon experience is cultural — actually having to interact with customers is seen as a defect, a failure of the machine — and that cultural strain is embedded so deep and runs so high in the organization that it can’t be challenged.

Amazon is already a force to be reckoned with across an astoundingly broad spectrum of the digital economy. They have all the tools, talents and ambition needed to be a dominant force in the future of the web. My most urgent wish for Amazon — as a customer, a fan and an advocate — is that they take Maya Angelou’s advice and pay just a little more attention to how they make people feel.

There is magic in the human connection that all the data scientists in the world will never decode. If Amazon can tap into that magic with the same conviction they bring to everything else they do, they will be unstoppable.

Chris DeVore is a Seattle entrepreneur and angel investor. You can find him on Twitter @crashdev. This post originally appeared on his blog, and was reprinted on  GeekWire with permission.

Previously on GeekWire: Amazon.com connects with Americans despite very little human interaction

Comments

  • Guest

    Chris, what is your opinion of Amazon’s subsidiaries who launch more curated experiences? For example, Woot and Quidsi tap into passionate communities with focussed boutiques including Wag, a store for those who love dogs (and who in Seattle doesn’t?). I doubt that most of us will fall in love with Amazon as a corporation — it’s simply too big for that — but with smaller brands/sites, it is possible to feel more like a member of a community.

  • http://twitter.com/crashdev Chris DeVore

    I’m always excited to see Amazon’s experiments in the social direction — the Facebook integration was the best IMO — and I’m glad to see that Zappos has been able to hold on to their people-centric culture + practices post-acquisition. It may be that there’s a well-supported effort within the company to test these ideas before rolling them out more broadly (and the recent Quorus acquisition suggests that the idea of connecting customers with each other isn’t entirely dead), but the culture is moving so fast on this front that I’d love to see some bolder moves.

  • http://twitter.com/crashdev Chris DeVore

    I’m always excited to see Amazon’s experiments in the social direction — the Facebook integration was the best IMO — and I’m glad to see that Zappos has been able to hold on to their people-centric culture + practices post-acquisition. It may be that there’s a well-supported effort within the company to test these ideas before rolling them out more broadly (and the recent Quorus acquisition suggests that the idea of connecting customers with each other isn’t entirely dead), but the culture is moving so fast on this front that I’d love to see some bolder moves.

  • 1,000-Yard Stare

    I interviewed at Amazon in 2011, and I can tell you the interview process feels exactly the same as you are describing the customer/partner experience. Only one person out of the seven or eight I interacted with came across as human. The rest felt like brainwashed robots. It was the creepiest interview process of my career. (I have a friend who works there, and she says working there feels very much the same way. Yeesh.)

  • Jacquelyn Krones

    Interestingly, Amazon won the #1 spot for “emotional appeal”
    in the recently released Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study.  I’m not sure what questions went into the “emotional
    appeal” index, but my guess is that Amazon wins “emotionally” by making online
    shopping more predictable and faster. Instead of going with an unknown vendor
    who may or may not ship when they say they will, people can buy from Amazon at
    a good price and feel confident that they’ll get it and get it quickly. They
    get an emotional connection with their customer by exceeding their expectations
    of the risk involved in online shopping.

     

    That isn’t the same as a “human” connection and if other
    players can deliver the same functional benefits, the glow could “wear off”
    over time. I agree with you that the experience of shopping at Amazon is a
    little cold. But whether it is currently, in the next few years, Amazon’s Achilles’
    heel? It seems likely they have some time.

    • http://twitter.com/CPC_Andrew Andrew Davis

      I agree with you here. The way Amazon makes it’s customers feel is their real goal. Safe, secure, trust. It’s an online shopping experience that only a few have replicated. That’s a unique emotional connection with your customer.

  • http://josephsunga.com Joseph Sunga

    Great read, Chris. Several days ago, John wrote (http://www.geekwire.com/2012/amazoncom-connects-americans-human-interaction) about how Amazon ranked highest in Emotional Appeal in the Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study. What are your thoughts on that?

  • http://josephsunga.com Joseph Sunga

    Great read, Chris. Several days ago, John wrote (http://www.geekwire.com/2012/amazoncom-connects-americans-human-interaction) about how Amazon ranked highest in Emotional Appeal in the Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study. What are your thoughts on that?

  • Youdontneedthisinformation

    I actually like not having to interact with them.  Just sell me stuff at a good price and deliver it on time.  Lots of other e-tailers are so overblown with surveys, email, promotions, Facebook/Twitter/Youtube, Google+ integration, etc. that they become annoying.  The clean Amazon interface and following experience is a refreshing break from that, IMHO.

  • http://twitter.com/stephenrwalli Stephen Walli

    Chris: Great observations. I’ve been a happy Amazon customer for a long
    time, but it is a machine in every sense of the word.  I contrast it
    with my wife’s online shopping here in England at Boden, M&S, and
    John Lewis.  It’s all clothes related, and there’s a lot of returns
    built into the system, but it’s the varying levels of customer service
    that is fascinating to see.  John Boden clearly understands that part of
    the clothes shopping experience involves people and goes out of the way
    to enable his customer support team.  I’ve confidence it’s wired into
    his pricing, but she loves it. (Boden is also the only pure online
    experience with no store front to finance.)  Hopefully Amazon continues
    to understand that delivering books and movies is very different from
    clothes and doesn’t mess with the Zappos formula.   

  • Forrest

    Obviously the best product isn’t always the one that wins, but I think the Achilles’ heel for Amazon is more so that at least some of their products are extremely low quality whereas their competition is producing a much better user experience, that is more scalable and likely with much better margins.

  • Pradeep Chauhan

    Its about ‘doing what you are best at’. Companies fail when they try to be all things to all people as its not possible. They will change if and when they see customers actually not buying from them because they ‘are not making them feel good’.

    I buy from Amazon because I can search stuff easily, read reviews and get stuff on time- every time. Same reason I go through a drive-through at McDonalds to get a Big Mac-where I don’t expect the service of a high end steakhouse. It would be nice but cost prohibitive to do that.

    • Forrest

      Funny, I have a very difficult time finding anything on Amazon.com, the reviews are most often useless (eg by people who don’t know or understand the product) and every time I’ve tried their free prime shipping my order has arrived later than if I went for the free shipping option.

      • Pradeep Chauhan

         granted it is relative. Niche sites kick Amazon’s butt in specific categories, I’m speaking about the 80% generic stuff that people buy. My free Prime’s 2 day shipping has been working great for me.

Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.