The Myth of The Happy Customer
What does it mean to be competitive when you create customers who can’t be satisfied and workers who are invisible?
The thing that disturbed me most about Jeff Bezos’ statement before Congress last week is not what might have disturbed most, but as a sales person (I work in food distribution), it’s very telling. It’s not surprising, but I wonder how it landed, not among Congress, but among the market that allows Amazon to exist, its customers and employees.
“I founded Amazon 26 years ago with the long-term mission of making it Earth’s most customer-centric company.”
Nothing in this statement stands out as odd until you realize that it created a company that is the opposite of worker-centric. It’s not even worker-adjacent.
It’s not a mystery that Amazon ended up where it has. By the stretch of a limited imagination, it succeeded. Bezos concluded: “Fortunately, our approach is working. Eighty percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Amazon overall, according to leading independent polls. Who do Americans trust more than Amazon ‘to do the right thing?’ Only their primary physicians and the military, according to a January 2020 Morning Consult survey.”
To Bezos, doing the right thing means delivering your box on time. But here’s the lesson most sales executives fail to learn: An uninformed customer can’t be right.
This is not to say there shouldn’t be good service but our view of the kind of service that is possible is bottomless, and Bezos knows that. So has he solved a problem or created one, maybe more than one? Did we need a replacement for bookstores, or did five years of dangling impossible convenience under our noses convince us that we did? Convenience has costs, and Amazon has trained us to believe it doesn’t. I am not innocent in this. He dropped a drug in our neighborhood and addiction caught me, yelling at a $5 item in my cart, “What do you mean I can’t get it tomorrow?”
There are two types of sales people, no matter what you’re selling: those who always say yes, even when the delivery is impossible, and those who educate their consumers about why it’s impossible and offer a solution. It doesn’t matter if you’re shipping books or selling fish or bread, as I have, the same holds true: what is impossible today can be made possible if I sacrifice my team, if I shrink their deadlines, if I make it unacceptable for them to have paid sick leave. Convenience never comes without cost. It’s like matter. It is not made or destroyed. It simply finds a way to balance itself. Our convenience is someone’s inconvenience.
Anti-trust laws aren’t rooted in what happens to workers. The purpose of breaking up a monopoly — as we did with railroads, oil, and AT&T — is to enable a free economy in which the consumer benefits from a competitive market. But without looking at the other end of that market, the worker end of the equation, competition has led to outsourced production and increasingly cheaper labor, which ultimately does not benefit the economy or the community it serves. The only measure within anti-trust law that comes close to examining worker economy might be what’s called predatory pricing, but this clause is often debated away because of its typically short-term nature, and again, is really more concerned with fair competition from a consumer perspective. Predatory pricing is when a company is so big that it can set below-market prices temporarily, just long enough to squash competition.
I’ve been reading a lot about soup kitchens lately, about the history of dining, about the economy of service, and why restaurants — a truly poor investment for anyone looking for a sizable return — were invented at all, why they continue to exist. When the French aristocracy was briefly forced to be members of society, a revolution did not lead to restaurants, which already existed, but rather the idea that everyone could be included in the party. The notion failed because the cook was still invisible. We are still failing under this illusion today.
As Rebecca L. Spang details in her book, The Invention of the Restaurant, the uprising held “fraternity” dinners that were supposed to replace the grand couvert, where the public used to buy tickets to watch the king and queen eat. The uprising also denounced new shops that had opened up to serve restaurer (“restorative” soups), which seemed to be making profits off those who wished to dine out in private. In the beginning, these shops were seen as health houses set distinctly apart from dining halls that served one meal communally, known as table d’hôte service, or the host’s table.
At the fraternity dinners, everyone was invited and no one was the host. They turned out to be very awkward. The truth is that someone has to be responsible for making the soup and there’s nothing wrong with that. Thankfully, there are people who want to host. The problem occurs when we expect them to host for free, or for less than their worth. When we are evaluating service based only on customer impact, when we fail to take into account how the soup is made or the life of the soup maker, how can we possibly define the quality of service? The soup maker becomes imaginary so that we can have the soup how we want to have it, and give the maker a bad review when it shows up late.
Most of us are not forced to distinguish between what’s possible and what shouldn’t be possible. We see a box delivered in a day and we like that. Who are we to question it when we’re getting exactly what we want? Amazon, and the like, becomes our enabler. We don’t have to ask. Because of this, budgets are often built in reverse, based not on what something costs but on what customers are willing to pay. Margins become imaginary, but the people living in them are not.
I have always strived to be the latter kind of sales rep, the educator, a working bridge between sales and production. Sometimes it’s not easy, especially when customers believe they know more about your product than you do. If a customer does know more, they absolutely should hold you accountable, but there needs to be a conversation, not a yes, sir. There is a constant weighing of possibilities but the production team should always be part of the balance. I am no less responsible to them than I am to a customer. Sometimes that means the customer is wrong, and that shouldn’t be a shattering thought.
I have to think to myself, what is being sacrificed? Am I giving my team enough time to transition to a new way of operating, or have I already made a deal without taking this time into consideration? I’m also responsible for how this new operation affects my competitors and their employees. Am I prepared to say to them, this is the new gold standard? Catch up or close up. If I do, am I moving the needle to an inhospitable place?
When we leave production teams out of the conversation, we begin to make promises we can’t keep. We begin the climb up stress mountain. We find a way to keep that promise despite the harm to our team. When we succeed in our short-term goal, maybe we get a bit of adrenaline and start believing the sacrifice was worth it. I have seen the sweat on sales reps’ faces when they realize they’ve cornered themselves. The corner is perpetual and never-ending from here: If a customer will always want something better, the win will only ever be short-term.
If, on the other hand, a customer learns something from you, if they understand the process, they are less likely to believe the next upstart that comes along and tries to make false promises. That’s what trust looks like. But that is not what competition looks like now. In many arenas, we have given up the fight to understand the process, in large part because it has become harder to track. Maybe we think, well, my local bookstore doesn’t have what I’m looking for. But did you know that if you asked them, they will almost certainly track it down for you? And if they make a mistake, they’ll pick up the phone and talk to you.
So I’m here to ask: If we, the consumer, had the choice to decide what we really wanted based on what it would mean for the people making it possible, would we still make the same choice?
Has Amazon achieved its long-term goal? Without a doubt. It has become Earth’s most customer-centric company, no matter how blind or bottomlessly dissatisfied that customer is. Bezos says he’s given us things before we’ve asked for them, but what he means by this is that he knows we are insatiable beings that don’t know when to quit. It means he only solves the problems of the voids he creates and can fill. It has made its CEO the world’s richest man and its workers the most invisible.
Jeff Bezos ended his statement to Congress on an optimistic note, but what is there to be optimistic about? Throughout his statement he mentions his adoptive father’s chance to emigrate to the U.S. from Cuba when he was a minor in the early 1960s, but he fails to stand up for the reality that Amazon might not be here if his father, who was one of its first investors, lived through today’s America or worked for a company like Amazon.