Trust Me… I’m Amazon!

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Stranger Danger!

What does that phrase make you think of? For most of us, hearing those two words together is enough to conjure up an image of a parent or teacher warning us not to trust people we don’t know. We grew up being told that people we don’t know might be out to get us, meaning that any company relying on the trustworthiness of strangers has a mountain of societally-ingrained distrust to overcome. Earlier this month, however, Amazon put on its climbing gear to tackle this mountain.

On November 8th, Amazon released a new product called Amazon Key. Exclusive to Prime subscribers, $249 US will get you the convenience of having an Amazon delivery person drop off that package you ordered inside your home instead of on the doorstep, a feat accomplished by installing an Amazon Cloud Cam and digital keyless lock that is unlocked remotely by Amazon when the delivery person confirms their location. If alarm bells are going off literally and figuratively for you at this point, you’re not alone.

Not In My House

A recent survey by technology news website Recode suggests that even among Amazon Prime subscribers, over half of respondents stated that they would “definitely not” buy an Amazon Key. People simply aren’t open to the idea of allowing a stranger to enter their own home when they’re not around.

But wait… hasn’t someone else already proven this isn’t true?

“Maybe the people that my childhood taught me to label as strangers were actually friends waiting to be discovered.”
— Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb

Trusting strangers enough to let them into your home is the pillar upon which the immensely successful Airbnb was founded. Not so long ago, it would have been unfathomable that almost one million people would either be staying in someone else’s home or be welcoming someone into their home, each and every night. Now, it’s been completely normalized.

In much the same way that Tesla Man heroically combines two seemingly opposing forces (sexy rebel vs. sensible breadwinner) to redefine modern masculinity, Airbnb has accomplished the previously impossible task of combining the allure and mystique of travelling and staying in out-of-the-way locales, with a sense of security and comfort felt by both homeowners and renters.

Airbnb has already summitted the same mountain on which Amazon Key is about to make its climbing attempt: normalizing the act of allowing someone you don’t know to enter your home. Joe Gebbia and the other founders of Airbnb understood that people are fundamentally biased towards trusting people that are similar to themselves, and designed Airbnb from the ground up to simultaneously overcome and exploit this bias. Not only does Airbnb’s reputation-based review system mean that you can easily find verifiably reputable homeowners, but the way in which the platform is designed means that renters and homeowners are “introduced” to each other via brief descriptions, a crucial humanizing step for building trust beyond a purely transactional level.

People vs. Product

Amazon may be the undisputed leader in e-commerce and is trusted by millions of consumers to deliver products, but it has not yet transcended the transactional level of trust. At its core, Amazon’s business is dependent on selling products, while Airbnb’s is dependent on selling trust.

Airbnb approaches the convenience / home security dilemma from the stance that people are generally trustworthy, and everything on its website is geared towards this positive, market-enabling stance. Sure, if something does go wrong, Airbnb’s homeowners and renters know they have back-office guarantees protecting them, but these are in the background for a reason: Airbnb wants people to know that you are a trustworthy human being, and so too are most of the people in the world.

Comparison of the people- vs product-centric landing pages for Airbnb Experiencesand Amazon Key.

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By contrast, Amazon treats home security like a product that its customers are worried could break at any moment. This market-disabling approach means that warranties and guarantees against misuse are featured prominently, sending the message of “you’re right to be worried, but we can fix things if they go wrong”. One message paves the way for redefining home security in the new economy, the other mitigates but nonetheless reinforces ingrained “stranger danger” beliefs.

Trustworthy by Design

It is in Amazon’s and its customers’ best interests to have packages delivered safely and securely. As such, Amazon will undoubtedly monitor its delivery people very closely, especially during the early days of Amazon Key. The customer needs to know that this surveillance is happening, but if Amazon wants to redefine home security, it can follow a three-step framework to go beyond the transaction.

1) Humanize Your Employees

Airbnb’s portal encourages users (both hosts and guests) to write brief “about me” introductions as an initial trust-building step. Amazon does not need to go this far (nor should it, since delivering packages is far less intimate than sleeping under a stranger’s roof), but one simple step to catalyze trust and service adoption would be to do something like create thank you cards that can be left atop packages delivered inside your door: picture a business card with a smiling photo of the delivery person, and a note saying “Your package today was proudly delivered by Amazoner Maria, a 29-year-old mother of 2 (or by Sanjay, the 23-year-old Raptors fan… etc.). Thank you for trusting me with your delivery!” This may seem like an unnecessary added cost for a supply chain efficiency leader like Amazon, but it’s an easy catalyst for reshaping trustworthiness in the short term, and if successful, it won’t even be necessary in the long term as customers come to accept in-home delivery as normal.

2) Provide Avenues For Transparent Feedback

Services like Uber and Lyft have proven that using a simple rating system is a highly effective tool for aggregating feedback. Although Amazon will (hopefully) have carefully vetted its delivery personnel already, providing this familiar means of communicating feedback will have several benefits: it will make customers feel as though they have some power in the transaction, it will provide a means for reinforcing positive behaviour in delivery personnel, and it can be used as a highly-visible proof of service quality as Amazon Key gains traction.

3) Proactive Customer Service

Simple and timely customer service should hopefully be easy for Amazon Key, since Amazon already has a reputation for going above and beyond with resolving customer service issues. In fact, it is so skilled with customer service that it has been known to manage potential issues even before the customer contacts them to complain. Because delivery personnel are already being monitored by Amazon HQ staff through the Cloud Cam, it should be possible to identify issues that may lead to negative customer sentiment in real-time, and if Amazon is able to incorporate the success of its proactive customer service into its Amazon Key program, it will find a way to turn potential negative experiences into positive surprises, much to the delight of nervous customers.

Trust Is Key

Amazon is renowned for finding innovative ways of advancing automation, so it stands to reason that their eventual goal could be to make in-home deliveries without needing a person physically present inside the house. In 2017, however, it must still rely on people to perform this task, and in order to do so sustainably, it will need to follow the trail previously taken by Airbnb: designing an experience in which customers view delivery people not as strangers, but as decent human beings, like themselves.

Even more important than technology, trust will be the key to opening doors for Amazon.


This post was originally published at ama.org. Russell Morrison, Qinyi Cao, Setareh Rahimian, Akash Sood, Alifa Karmali and Alper Cicek are students in Markus Giesler’s Customer Experience Design MBA elective course.

Markus Giesler

York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Canada

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.