By now we all know how Amazon has changed the way we shop, read, and even create businesses with its Amazon Web Services arm. But in the early days of eCommerce, it was far from a sure success. As I’m in the process of writing a book on how Amazon has changed the rules of the game for customer engagement, I recently had the distinct pleasure of speaking with one of the people responsible for leading the design of Amazon’s first site.
Rick Ayre, former Executive Editor of PC Magazine and Amazon’s Vice President and Executive Editor from 1996-2000, shares some of his experiences during the early days of the business. Rick was responsible for the editorial content and design of the Amazon website, and discusses the role content, design and customer experience played in shaping the direction of the company.
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Small Business Trends: How did you get started at Amazon.com?
Rick Ayre: In July of 1996, Amazon contacted us and asked us if they could send some marketing people to do a demo of a new website.
I was already doing websites for Ziff Davis and other people at the time, so I went to the demo. I think the lead woman was the first Vice President of Marketing for Amazon. She and her assistant started to demo the site and they said,’We’re going to build an online bookstore, and this is the homepage. We just launched the homepage, and we wanted to show you the homepage and the site, the way it looks now, and tell you what we’re doing.’
I watched the demo for about five minutes and I said, ‘Do you want to know how to build a great bookstore?’ They kind of looked at me and said, ‘Well, sure.’ So I talked for the next 45 minutes of their demo, and the next day I received a telephone call from Jeff Bezos’ personal assistant and she said, ‘He would like to talk with you, and he was wondering if you were going to be in the area anytime soon.’
The first week in August, PC Magazine is going to be in Seattle for an Editor’s Day and I arranged to meet him. He pulled up in an old Honda Accord and said, ‘Jump in,’ and I jumped.
He gave me a whirlwind tour of the fulfillment center and the offices. At the end of it he said, ‘Rick, would you be willing to talk to us about a job?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll listen.’ I have to say, parenthetically, that my first love in my life is books, but the second is music, and the third is technology. The order sometimes shifts, but I was committed to all three of those things. I read everything. I listen to most everything, and I play with technology.
In fact, the reason I took the job at PC Magazine was because I was trying to figure out a way to be able to get somebody to pay me to play with technology all the time, and pretty much that’s what the job was at PC Magazine.
I loved all those things, so synergy with Amazon was obvious.
Small Business Trends: Was the culture of customer obsessiveness already baked in at that point?
Rick Ayre: Yes, but, as a lot of people will tell you, Jeff was a pragmatist. He did an interview with The Wall Street Journal and they asked, ‘Why would people give you their credit card? They don’t know you?’ And this is back when everyone’s consciousness was, ‘Why would anyone buy books from you?’
So in order to cushion the thinking and provide a safety net on one hand, but a website that was welcoming and friendly on the other, the challenge is we’re not trying to convince somebody to buy a book. The challenge is to convince them that they should buy it from you and that they can trust you.
So one of the first things Jeff did was try to figure out how to do effective customer service. He was the first person I heard say, ‘We want to meet or, if at all possible, exceed every customer’s expectations about how this is going to go, how the relationship with us is going to go from the beginning to the end. Every aspect of that relationship should exceed their expectations, and that’s our goal.’
Small Business Trends: Did Jeff bring you in to help translate that vision into the website design and the website experience?
Rick Ayre: Yeah, I was the gatekeeper for the customer experience on the first half of the relationship, and then the second half was the fulfillment centers and customer service.
Small Business Trends: So the first half was on the front end of the website, and then the second half of the relationship was the actual fulfillment?
Rick Ayre: Fulfillment and customer service if it was necessary. But the customer service started from the moment you purchased a book. I think at the beginning he wanted to congratulate people for buying the book. But I’m not sure he ever put that into words. But you got an email from Amazon giving you all the details and telling you how you could check up on the status of your order and what to expect next. So the customer service part started right away upon your purchase, and it continued until you received your products.
Small Business Trends: How did you go about designing the website experience to get people to buy?
Rick Ayre: We had an explicit set of goals. Some of them we vocalized, and some of them we didn’t. Our feeling was that, unlike Walmart, we didn’t have to try and convince the customer to buy a product.
No matter what book page you were on, we didn’t have to convince you to buy that book. Instead, what we wanted to do was entertain you and get you to click on a few more pages. In other words, intrigue you and then once you were on a product page, we wanted to create the perfect context to make a buying decision; that decision could be to buy the book or not.
We didn’t want you necessarily to buy the book. We wanted to be sure that you were in an environment where you had the information you needed to decide whether that was the book you wanted to buy, and if you did make the decision to buy that book, that you were happy with that decision.
It started from that point, and it continued until you had the book and were more than satisfied with it. Otherwise you wouldn’t come back, and we needed everybody to come back.
Small Business Trends: Was hiring an editorial executive something that was done a lot in the early days of eCommerce, or was that something that Amazon was early on to the scene in doing?
Rick Ayre: Well, we were eCommerce, so everything that we did was early on in eCommerce. But yes, we did make a conscious decision to try and distinguish our site with the content that was on it, and we worked hard to hire people. When Jeff hired me, he said, ‘Okay Rick, a third of your job is running the editorial group. A third of your job is hiring people, and that could be for anybody in the company.’
Working for me was Susan Benson, who was in charge of the editorial group and the words and the headlines. When we started, we had nebulous roles. She ended being in charge of production, building the production system.
Jeff wasn’t sure why we needed designers. ‘What does art have to do with it,’ he said. But, in fact, we made it the convention that we don’t want a highly designed site. We’re not Apple, but we did want a site that was warm and welcoming and made people happy and intrigued them at the same time, so they would come often and stay late.
Small Business Trends: So once he understood how that fit in with obtaining and keeping customer’s attention, he was good to go?
Rick Ayre: Yes I think, and pretty quickly as the other eCommerce sites sprung up, it was clear one of the differences between ours and almost every other eCcommerce site was the quality of the content – and that was a big differentiator. It made sense completely for content to be a factor if you’re trying to create a perfect environment for book buyers. It wasn’t as intuitively obvious when we launched music, which was next, or movies and DVDs and stuff, which was third.
But we used our ability to generate content with a large number of writers and our experience with how to create a site with great, intriguing content to our advantage as we moved into the other areas.
Small Business Trends: Was that already owned by Barnes & Noble, or did they buy that later on?
Rick Ayre: No, if Barnes & Noble owned Books.com, they bought it. Yeah, it was a separate website, an independent website. It wasn’t a website until very late on. It was an Internet site set up by someone who owned a bookstore and knew a little bit about the Internet.
Small Business Trends: I was looking back and thinking of all the different sites that I bought stuff from in those early days. Amazon is by far the only one that I stuck with. Do you consider the content piece of the website or the continual focus on the user experience, made Amazon the one that lasted?
Rick Ayre: I agree with your assertion that it was creating a customer experience. From the moment they arrived on the website to well after they received their product, that exceeded their expectations, that was a good one. It was great in fact. So we had to do it with the website, but we also had to understand customer service and how to provide that on the telephone and via email.
Jeff was really the person who guarded the customer experience from one end to the other, and he made it his responsibility to guarantee it was great from end to end.
Small Business Trends: You mentioned a little bit about customer feedback. What role did that play in evolving the website?
Rick Ayre: Well, from the very beginning, the customer reviews were a critical part of the content that we built on the site, and they were a point of contention, but something that we encouraged. Kevin Kelly, who’s a famous prognosticator in the Internet space, he was one of the early guys at Wired. He always used to say, and this was way back in the 1990s, ‘If you give people the space and the tools that they need to build a great Internet site, they’ll build it for you. You’ve just got to give them the space to do it and the way to do it.’ When it came to things like customer reviews, that certainly was true.
So that was a really important aspect. Even before we had editors to review books and music and movies and pick the 10 best and stuff like that, we had lots of individual customer reviews. As many people have said, it got us into a lot of trouble because an editor or a publisher or a writer would come and say, ‘Look, this is a negative review under my book, and you’re a bookseller. Aren’t you trying to sell my book?’
And we’d say, ‘Yes, we’re trying to sell your book to every person who really wants to buy it. But we’re not going to try and convince them that they should buy it. We’re going to try and help them make the decision about whether it’s the book they want to buy.’
Small Business Trends: All right, when you look back at all this, let’s say outside of online retail, what do you think Amazon’s biggest impact on customer/vendor relationships is? What do you think that would be?
Rick Ayre: The biggest change Amazon made was it changed the way people thought about shopping and buying. But I think the second biggest thing they did was they changed the way people thought about the Internet, the potential of the Internet to create these customer relationships and manage them. And then to figure out how to use the information they gathered.
In other words, the data on buying habits and turning that into an advantage that also is a feature for the customers. They’ve certainly created a whole way of managing a customer relationship using technology, a combination of online and computers that people only dreamed about in the past.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.