Amazon’s real business strategy is delight as a service

Tareq Ismail
Nov 14, 2019 · 3 min read
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Photo by Luke Dorny

Faces buried in stacks of paper, no one seemed to notice as I walked in and quietly found a seat. It was my first week working at Amazon and we were all meeting to discuss growth, sales, and other key metrics.

Surprisingly, almost all of my Amazon Prime team were there including developers, designers, financial staff, and managers. This is the culture at Amazon: everyone needs to obsess over the metrics.

It was 2009, a time when Amazon Prime, a subscription service that offers unlimited 2-day shipping and discounted next day delivery, was a clear success and growing rapidly. Although perks like Prime Video, Prime Music, and Unlimited photo storage were not yet included within the subscription, our numbers already showed people loved the service.

I assumed our metrics discussion would be focused primarily on growing our subscriber base, so I was surprised when my manager brought up an unusual segment of our users: Customers who had subscribed to Amazon Prime, paid the yearly fee, but hadn’t used the service since they didn’t make a single purchase all year.

Amazon Prime was already experiencing massive growth. Unlike most companies that would look to catapult off this growth and focus solely on acquiring even more new users, the Prime team was obsessed over a small percentage of customers who had already joined Prime but hadn’t yet utilized the service.

There weren’t a significant number of these users nor were they a group that were frequenting our customer service with complaints. Instead, the Amazon Prime team put them in focus proactively.

Ideas that I thought I’d never hear at a retail company, like “let’s just give them their money back before they ask?”, started quickly bouncing around the room. After much discussion, the team came to a solution: we’d send each person an email explaining that they hadn’t used the service but had still paid for it. Rather than give them a refund, we would provide them their next year of Amazon Prime free of charge.

This strategy, of course, delighted our users by showing that Amazon cared about its customers and was looking to provide value rather than make a quick buck. The result? It encouraged users to not only try Amazon Prime and start making purchases on Amazon again but to look at Amazon entirely differently as a company.

The experience was a masterful lesson in building delight into a product’s experience through its business strategy. There has been a growing discussion around the idea of delight within a product’s design, especially visual design, but not as much has been said about crafting delightful experiences around things such as pricing, distribution and customer retention.

After the meeting, I approached some team members and they simply reminded me:

Delight happens when your product incorporates something unexpected that shows users you care. It requires product makers to empathize with users regarding their challenges, concerns, or preferences.

Ultimately, Amazon’s products are a delivery mechanism of delight. People don’t leave their Prime subscriptions not only because of the value it provides but because of the delight each new addition or improvement brings. Amazon’s features are not merely delightful, but it’s how Amazon as a service continues to delight and surprise that keeps people coming back.

Amazon isn’t alone; there are many examples of companies implementing this idea. Think of how Zappos’ 365 day return policy helped customers overcome the common concern that items may not fit correctly when shopping for apparel online or how Audible offers a 3-month pause to its subscription service because users often can’t keep up with listening to an audiobook a month.

These companies have gone above the status quo to surprise their users with thoughtful options; they’ve built delight into their strategy.

To develop better products the discussion around delight needs to expand beyond visual design and focus on all aspects of a product’s development.

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