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Questions for Jeff Bezos
Oct 14, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Whatever happened to those lovely commercials from AT&T, which promised us that we will? "You will" send and receive faxes from the beach. "You will" have movies on demand from the comfort of your easy chair. "You will" do business on the net.

Wait a minute, we are doing business on the Internet. We may not be making a ton of money at it, but we are doing business on the damn thing. And it's more than just advertising. The latest Business Week reports that Wal-Mart and Warner-Lambert (the makers of Listerine) are collaborating on CFAR (which stands for collaborative forecasting and replenishment), an Internet-based sales tracking and forecasting system for retailers. As Business Week reports, if you buy a bottle of Listerine this fall, "you'll be part of a test of electronic-commerce technology."

CFAR's strength lies in what's known as "message formatting." Systems on one end will automatically create appropriately formatted messages for the other end to interpret. The Internet only adds value as a cost-effective network to link merchants and suppliers. The formatted messages will enable automated processing by machines on each end. For example, if the numbers between a merchant and a supplier differ by more than 10%, CFAR-enabled software will trigger an alert to each party, who will then "use the link to exchange more data and written comments" in order to narrow the gap between their forecasts.

But what happens when a business can't use something like CFAR? What happens when they have to rely on incoming messages that aren't generated by computers? What happens when the incoming message is just plain email, generated by a consumer? What then?

One of the challenges in building a consumer business on the Internet is, frankly, dealing with consumers. While the digital domain may seem blissfully bit driven, there are challenges to providing high quality customer service via web forms, databases and email. Consumers live (and shop) in the real world, where they have face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) interaction with sales and customer service representatives every day. Delegating that relationship to a PC can be an enormous leap of faith...

No one company knows this better than Amazon is the largest bookstore on the Internet, and with the ability to find and ship nearly every book in print, could be the largest bookstore in the world. While their storefront is on the web, much of their customer service is done via email. Order a book on Amazon, and you receive a confirming email message. Have a question about your order? Email Amazon, and they'll reply promptly. They even have a Personal Notification service, which will notify you via email of any new titles on subjects or authors you're interested in.

While an Internet-based business would probably be remiss without these services, this stuff ain't easy to do. When Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, commented in a recent NPR interview that they had to build all of their mail handling systems themselves, it piqued my interest. If the Internet is going to be a successful medium for consumer business, then consumer businesses are going to need CFAR quality tools for communicating with their customers. So, I emailed Jeff Bezos to follow up on his NPR interview. He was kind enough to respond, and had some interesting things to say on the challenges of providing high quality customer service on the Internet.

theobvious: Why is using email so extensively? What are some of the primary advantages of using email for customer service issues?

Bezos: Relative to phone, email has some advantages and some disadvantages. Net net, it's an advantage. First, you can do excellent load balancing with email (vs phone). If people wait on hold for thirty seconds, they start to get impatient. No one needs an email reply in thirty seconds. Second, you can do better escalation (to a more trained customer service rep) without forcing the customer to explain his or her problem a second time. Third, you can have very automated tools that help format email replies to frequent questions.

The downside to email vs phone is that you can't interact with the customer (the latency is too high) and so you have to use a lot of puzzle solving ability to figure out what the customer's real problem is (in the case that the incoming message is ambigous).

theobvious: Why not rely 100% on a forms-based web system?

Bezos: Our plan is to ultimately make it as easy for customers as possible to do as much as they would like by web form. Right now, the only thing you can do on our site is check the status of your orders. We'll add customer accessible features over time. There will always be a place for email because customers will want to ask that question that just doesn't quite fit into the things you've anticipated.

theobvious: Did you investigate Lotus Notes?
Bezos: We didn't look at Notes. You'd still need to build all the right business logic into the notes applications.

theobvious: You mentioned in your NPR interview that you wouldn't be surprised if a year from now there weren't a dozen companies providing these kinds of products. What key features would you want to see in those products?

Bezos: Software should receive an inbound message, look up the customer information automatically (based on email or other clues), and offer a menu of customizable responses and actions for the customer service rep to make and take.

That's the main thing, but there are a whole bunch of other feature you want such as easy escalation (message transfer to a different group), auto filtering by keyword (if the message has cancel in it, you might want to push it to the top of the queue for example.

The system that Amazon has built from scratch is no doubt an incredibly valuable corporate asset. Not only does it help them manage their relationships with their customers, but the logic built into their system represents the workflow of their operation. The system represents and mirrors the very structure of the corporation, and the interaction with their customers. This is no small accomplishment, and the companies that will (surely) try to build "off the shelf" packages for managing email-based customer service will have to keep in mind that a system like this does much, much more than just route email.

It connects the corporation with their customers.



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