When I was the Head of Banking at Amazon Web Services, I was able to peek behind the curtain and learn how Amazon really works. While there are some things Amazon keeps close to the chest, I was surprised that many of the most wonderful things about Amazon are available to the public.
This is a guide to the open secrets at Amazon that you’d hear during orientation or at a high-level customer meeting. Amazon makes these things public to build stronger relationships with customers, and since almost everyone is an Amazon customer, you can find them all online. But you’d only know about these things if you had a friend at Amazon. So I invite you, my friend, to examine some of my favorite secrets.
- Leadership Principles. Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but takes a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon embeds its culture in its 14 Leadership Principles (called LP’s inside Amazon). This is a common language and framework that forms the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to business strategy. One of the senior interviewers helpfully explains how to use them during your interview. Jeff Bezos’s famous letters to shareholders are chock full of leadership principles. Even though most Amazonians (what we call Amazon employees) have memorized the Leadership Principles, they had some odd typos that I helped clean up.
- Amazon’s Culture of Innovation. One of the best things at Amazon is its onboarding process. Everyone gets 3 months to immerse themselves in the Amazon culture and learn the Amazonian way of doing things. During this process, I felt really special learning how Amazon’s culture works. But here’s the crazy thing, a few weeks into the job, I saw a presentation on “Amazon’s Culture of Innovation.” I discovered that Amazon tells all of these secrets to our AWS customers! You can see this presentation by Googling Amazon’s Culture of Innovation (it’s given pretty frequently) or take a look at this presentation from the AWS re:Invent Conference.
- Absurd Product Reviews at Amazon.com. As I finished my onboarding, my final task was to read some of Amazon’s funniest customer reviews. Amazon has always allowed customers to indulge their creativity with humorous, fanciful reviews. In 2017, Maria Popova highlighted some fantastically humorous reviews of Amazon products like BIC Cristal For Her Ball Pen and Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer. Amazon decided to create it’s own list to show off these reviews to customers and employees. There’s even a audio production of these reviews read by celebrities but that doesn’t seem to work quite as well, but you’ve got to give them credit for trying.
- Discounts. When I was at Amazon, my friends always asked me, “Do you get a discount?” Yes, I got a discount worth about $100 a year which felt like a drop in the bucket of my Amazon spending. However, I learned about a much better discount at a company-wide meeting. The best financial deal at Amazon is the Amazon Prime Credit Card which gets you 5% off anything on Amazon and at Whole Foods with no annual fee beyond your prime membership. Coming from the credit card world, 5% back is an amazing deal. For a comparison, redeeming ThankYou points from Citi at Amazon is worth 0.8% per point.
- Amazon in Real Life. Pre-COVID-19, Amazon would give a behind the scenes tour of their physical locations. We used to take our most important customers on tours of the Amazon Go store (I wrote about how Amazon Go is the future of payments). They used to have tours of their warehouses, or as Amazon calls them, fulfillment centers. You could also take a self-guided tour of the Amazon campus which was surprisingly good. My favorite physical Amazon experience is Amazon Books which feels like you’re literally walking through the website. When it opened, they gave out this self-guided tour handout that highlighted how Amazon mixes the online and offline worlds.
- Amazon customer support. I used to think that Amazon didn’t want to talk to me on the phone. Years ago, I was so proud of myself for finding Amazon’s customer service number. Working at Amazon, I’d learned that they have one of the largest customer support groups in the world with over 100,000 people answering calls at any time. If you want to talk to someone these days, just search for call me and click on the link at the top.
- Failing at Amazon. Many large companies think that Amazon enjoys failure. They try to fail more to show that they are experimenting. Jeff even says that Amazon should be the best company for a person to fail at. But as I wrote, failure isn’t the goal, learning is.
- Amazon Building Names. Amazon names all of its buildings with codes of nearby airports. This is one of the many things that reminded us in AWS of Amazon’s history as a retailer. I was in JFK14 and in our basement was JFK15, the Prime Now Warehouse (it used to be on the 5th floor). A lot of my packages come through JFK8. Note that Google Maps treats many of these names as valid location names. And if you want to learn more about where these names are on Amazon packages, check out this explainer.
- Bonus Tip: Surviving in Open Offices. Amazon has an open office plan with most people sitting at desks in large, open rooms. The best way to survive the open office is to get some headphones. Get something big and bulky. Not only does this help to cancel out the noise around you, but it provides a signal to others not to bother you when you’re working.
Amazon is a peculiar company (I’ve written about this too.) It’s a company that promotes the creative and fanciful review, takes you on tours of the future, and gives great discounts. It even shows you behind the scenes to how this all happens. Why does it do this? Because it’s customer obsessed (see LP #1). So take advantage of it and make the most of your Amazon customer experience.