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Author's profile photo Andrea Waisgluss

Amazon: Working Backwards Towards Customer Satisfaction

In one of the most packed SAP Design Talk sessions yet, UX Manager at Amazon Business, Chuck Ames, drew in a large and curious crowd wanting to find out the secret behind Amazon’s seemingly unstoppable success.

According to Ames, the driving force is perpetual customer dissatisfaction. “We have to assume that customers are not going to be satisfied tomorrow by what we have today.” If we want to meet their needs, he explained while taking a literal leap forward, we need to stand in the future and solve their problems today.

Working backwards towards customer satisfaction

It comes as no surprise that Amazon’s approach to product development is dubbed “working backwards.” The approach begins with the customer’s problem and works its way backwards to identify the technology that will solve this problem. That way, product development teams at Amazon can create the future their customers need…at least for the time being.

Take Amazon Go, the futuristic supermarket where customers can grab products and leave without ever pulling out their wallet. The idea was a direct result of the working backwards approach, and it all began with identifying the problem: customers hate standing in lines. The technology (computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning) followed.

The working backwards approach begins with the creation of a PRFAQ (a press release, frequently-asked questions document and visual mock-ups). It’s meant to show how the product works to solve the customer’s problem, and everyone working on the product must be familiar with it as they move forward with every step of the design and development process.

The PRFAQ is much more than a mission statement — it’s a commitment to deliver. The press release opens with a location and date of publication; an exercise that forces the team to focus on an idea and commit to meeting their fictional delivery date. Along the way, details and dates might change, but it keeps teams accountable to ultimately deliver on their vision.

In many ways, the PRFAQ is reminiscent of our school days. It must be written in simple and clear language and follow strict formatting rules. It’s not designed to be easy, and according to Ames, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos concedes that the approach involves a lot of work. Still, it’s not optional, because if done correctly, it will save vast amounts work in the backend by keeping the team focused on building things that provide real customer benefit.

Customer obsession rules B2B

The working backwards approach is part of what makes Amazon “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” according to Ames. Even as the company expands into the market of business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce with Amazon Business, Amazon’s customer obsession culture does not seem to falter.

Amazon Business (previously Amazon Supply) is modelled after their consumer marketplace, but caters to businesses, government organizations and the educational sector. Although it’s a fairly new market player, Bank of America recently predicted that Amazon Business will capture 10% of the B2B market in the United States and 5% internationally by 2021, representing a market potential twice the size of its core retail business.

The challenges facing Amazon Business are different than those facing retail. Business users expect faster delivery, spend visibility, detailed procurement management, and integration with existing procurement systems. Yet according to Ames, the difference between retail and business users is less critical than the question that really matters: “What will the customer want in the future?”. Thus emerge the peculiarities that set Amazon apart: the option to search for women-owned businesses as a supplier category, the beloved Prime offering for the business context, and much more.

Irrespective of their product development approaches, this is one of the most important traits that Amazon and SAP share: they both embrace an extremely innovative culture. “I think it’s really fantastic that SAP has embraced innovation as one of its core values from the very start,” beamed Ames, “that’s also how we think about things at Amazon.” Whether working backwards or looking ahead, it’s clear the two companies are driven by a common goal: to keep their customers at the center of everything they do as they continue to move forward into a future that, in Ames’ words, can often resemble the stuff of science fiction.

Want to hear more on design from Chuck Ames? Watch this short video:

The SAP Design Talks regularly bring leaders from the international design scene to SAP. The sessions are held on a large stage for an internal audience of employees at various SAP locations around the globe.

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