Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has released his 2020 Shareholder Letter, and about a quarter of the way into the 4,000-word missive, he signaled an important shift in Amazon’s strategic focus:
“We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here. But I am committing us to an addition. We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”
(Excerpt from Jeff Bezos’ 2020 Letter to Amazon Shareholders)
Amazon is a perennial leader in consumer experience rankings – a position that’s been earned, in part, through a relentless focus on making everything effortless for customers (dating way back to the company’s patented 1-Click purchase button). As The Atlantic writer Franklin Foer put it in a 2019 feature about Bezos, “Amazon is the embodiment of competence, the rare institution that routinely works.”
But Amazon’s brand image is a complicated one, as the company serves many different constituencies – not just individual consumers, but also institutions (via its Amazon Web Services division), third-party sellers (who list their products for sale on Amazon) and, of course, the company’s own employees. And for at least some members of those other constituencies, there are blemishes on the Amazon brand.
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Some third-party sellers have claimed that Amazon engages in anti-competitive behavior, while some employees have criticized the company for its work environment. (Earlier this month, Amazon workers in Alabama rejected an attempt to unionize – the latest organizing effort to fail at the company.)
In his letter, Bezos addresses both of those constituencies, highlighting what he sees as the value they derive from Amazon. It is perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that these groups’ criticism does, at the very least, create a perception problem for the company.
It was to the employee audience, however, that Bezos dedicated an entire section of his letter – largely a defense of Amazon’s employment practices, but also, as evidenced by the quote above, a clarion call for the company to better distinguish itself in the workplace (among employees), just as it has done in the marketplace (among consumers).
Bezos’ laser focus on becoming the planet’s most customer-centric-company is the stuff of legend. To add a parallel, employee-centric component into the mix is a significant development. Bezos even tries to preempt shareholder criticism in the letter, asserting that the company can realistically outperform on both the customer experience and employee experience dimensions.
Critics will surely frame Bezos’ comments as nothing more than good annual report copy – a public relations stunt, rather than an operations strategy. That might be.
However, it’s also possible that Bezos honestly recognizes this as a key challenge for the company. After all, the customer and employee experiences are two sides of the same coin. Happy, loyal employees help create happy, loyal customers, who in turn help create even more happy, loyal employees. The value of that virtuous cycle, in driving sustainable competitive advantage, cannot be overstated.
It’s hard to imagine a company being able to deliver a consistently exceptional customer experience without having employees who are engaged, inspired and equipped to make that happen.
Despised employers might be able to perform well for a period of time, perhaps due to unusual market and/or competitive conditions, but it’s not a sustainable formula. If your employees are miserable, it’s going to catch up with you, in the form of lower productivity, higher absenteeism, and increased turnover – all of which degrades the quality of the customer experience, and eventually makes customers miserable, too.
Bezos even acknowledges this in his own words, writing in the Shareholder letter: “Your goal should be to create value for everyone you interact with. Any business that doesn’t create value for those it touches, even if it appears successful on the surface, isn’t long for this world. It’s on the way out.”
Bezos is a shrewd businessman, and it will be interesting to see if and how Amazon executes on his new employee-centric mission. At the very least, however, it’s clear that one of the world’s most successful CEOs is thinking as much about employee experience as he is about customer experience — and that’s a lead everyone should follow.
Jon Picoult’s new book, From Impressed To Obsessed, will be published in October 2021. Sign up here for pre-order updates, as well as to get Jon’s monthly Customer Experience & Leadership eNewsletter delivered right to your inbox.