I recently read about techniques Amazon CEO’s Jeff Bezos uses to create a great customer experience and one has really stuck with me as a brilliant way to get the whole organization focused on creating a product users love. It is something I am planning to replicate and it can help any company create products that delight users and get them to switch from competitors.
According to the article, even during the fledgling days of Amazon, Bezos worked hard to establish the philosophy of a company that obsesses over their customers from top to bottom. An overwhelming figure that used to always set the tone of his meetings was “the empty chair.” From the first days of Amazon, Bezos brought an empty chair into meetings and informed his top executives that they should consider that seat occupied by their customer, “the most important person in the room.” Throughout these meetings, a different weight was held on all decisions as the invisible but clear presence of the customer was always considered.
Multiple benefits to the empty chair
There are at least three benefits of Bezos’ empty chair strategy:
- First, features and new products are evaluated through the customer’s perspective. Think of all the products that have come to market, particularly technology products, that did not have a clear value to customers.
- Second, it keeps you from putting in features that are not in your customer’s or player’s interest. If people would be embarrassed to discuss a feature or new product openly in front of a real customer, there is a problem with that feature. Products that work against the customer will fail immediately or be replaced by a product consistent with the user’s interests, over time there are no secrets in product design.
- Third, if the product is an improvement or substitute for an existing good, the empty chair forces you to understand if you are creating enough unique value to prompt the user to switch. By having the customer in the room, you need to consider whether that customer would use your product and why they would switch to it from their current product. Given that a product must be 5 or 9 times better to get someone to switch, you can use the empty chair to determine if and how your new offering is that much better.
Some potential enhancements
Although I am loathe to suggest that there are ways to improve on how Amazon looks at customer, there are a few tactics that may even make the empty chair more powerful. First, fill the chair. Appoint somebody who would not normally be part of the meeting to attend as the voice of the customer. You must ensure, however, that the person understands the customer perspective and is willing to openly oppose senior executives.
Second, replace the empty chair with a mannequin. It may feel clichéd, but somebody may just sit in the empty chair, or if you have many empty chairs in a large conference room, it can quickly become a non-factor. A mannequin, while probably initially generating some laughs, will remind people that there is a customer presence to consider.
- Having an empty chair in executive meetings is a powerful way to ensure the customers’ interests are considered in strategic decisions, helping you create a company that has strong customer loyalty.
- The empty chair is also a powerful mechanic to avoid making decisions that will hurt your customers, and thus your relationship with them (and retention).
- The empty chair also focuses on why the customer would use your product or switch from a competitor.