A few weeks ago, before giving a talk on how to get your organization obsessed with customers, I talked with another presenter about how hard it can be to increase customer focus.  She mentioned a column by Peggy Noonan (Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter), written in the wake of Steven Slater’s epic descent down the JetBlue emergency chute.  In it, Noonan writes:

Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy. Which means we are forced to interact with each other, every day, in person and by phone and email. And it’s making us all a little mad.

Maybe he’s mad because of his hair?

Why are we mad? Here’s a story to illustrate.

I have a consultant friend who subscribes to Amazon Prime, where for a flat annual fee, you can have unlimited 2-day shipping on Amazon orders.  It’s designed for people who order often from Amazon.  Understandably, Amazon doesn’t want book resellers to dodge shipping fees. They watch for that kind of behavior, presumably through analysis of ordering patterns, and call it out.

But here’s the catch. As sophisticated as your algorithm might be, it may require some thought as you apply it to real life.  My friend orders a lot books – he’s crazy smart plus he likes giving books as gifts to clients and colleagues.  A few weeks back, Amazon sent him a nasty-gram which essentially charged him with misusing the Amazon Prime service and summarily ended his subscription!

My friend is no push-over.  He sent a note back to nastygrams@amazon.com (no, don’t try that one), arguing that he was using the service as its terms of use intended.  More importantly, he pointed out that the presumption of guilt – most likely decided by a computer – was surprising from a company known for service like Amazon.  For kicks, he guessed the email address for Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s CEO) and copied him.

The moral? In our rush to automate and increase productivity, we can never forget that most of us live in a fundamentally human economy – and thanks to thoughtless competitors, sometimes being human is enough. How can we differentiate by being more human than the other guys?

P.S. Surprise ending: Jeff Bezos’ assistant (yes, a human) responded to my friend within 36 hours, promising to reverse the decision and address the policy.  I guess we shouldn’t write Amazon off yet!