Amazon’s Achilles Heel

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 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.

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 LinkedIn, Zynga, Foursquare, Etsy, Kickstarter, Pinterest — 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 / 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 org 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 to tap into that magic with the same conviction they bring to everything else they do, they will be unstoppable.