Business today moves at a pace so unforgiving, it’s easy to find yourself holding your breath, wondering if your company will be the next to fold. Then, there’s Amazon.
While others struggle to innovate and remain relevant, it’s somehow surging ahead in sector after sector, blazing trails inconceivable when the book seller opened its door 25 years ago. What drives Amazon’s success? Our next guest, Steve Susi, is author of Brand Currency and tells us that what drives Amazon’s success isn’t cutting edge. It’s actually ancient.
Steve’s a former Amazon advertising executive, and he’ll take us inside the corporate enigma to revel the four currencies that dictate the customer’s and Amazon’s every move.
Here’s our conversation with Steve Susi.
Steve Susi: I’ve been building this notion of the four currencies for a while, but it really struck me. Amazon used to fly me around the world to present Amazon advertising’s capabilities. What I noticed, no matter what country I was in, it was standing room only.
I left to a standing ovation in Tokyo of 260 advertising execs from the largest holding company in the world, Dentsu. It was packed, I don’t speak Japanese, so they had translators and they made it a really big deal of it and then thy also stood and applauded at the end.
I said, “That’s it, people are dying to learn about this company. They’re dying to learn about what it is, down to the corporate employee that has allowed or enabled this company to achieve such dominance in so many areas that don’t seem related.”
But that’s what’s fun about this book. You’ll find the glue that connects cloud computing. processing, and storage, to Amazon studios that have won three Academy Awards, to delivering bananas for free in two hours. It’s an abnormal place, and they’re proud of it.
That was the moment, it was in Tokyo in 2016 I said, “When I leave, I’m writing this book.”
Steve’s Background at Amazon
Rae Williams: Tell us a little bit about your background and your particular story?
Steve Susi: I graduated in 1993 with a degree in advertising. But right before I did, I signed up for an hour on what was called the inter-net. I had to be accompanied by an IT grad student to a machine where I got 60 minutes to browse the earliest version of the internet, of the web.
When I got my degree that spring, I remember telling my dad and my mom, “I’m going to go into that computer advertising.” There was no use case for computer advertising at the time. When I moved to New York City to follow my dream of working on Madison Avenue, all the agencies that I interviewed with, didn’t care about my television reel or my radio spots, my magazine ads in my portfolio. They only cared about the web stuff that we had designed, because I started the first web department in 1995 at a little agency in Columbus, Ohio where I’m from.
Fast-forward through my career to 2012, next stop is 1996 when everybody said you’re crazy for leaving the traditional ad agency world to go to digital user experience design. I said, “You’re crazy, this is where the world is going, the web is changing everything.”
It’s obvious to me. You people are crazy, you can stay back in your cushy land of TV spots where there’s no sales attribution. There’s no modeling, there’s no nothing.
Then I’m in digital agencies until 2012, and once again, everybody said, “You’re crazy for leaving the digital space to go and be a creative leader at Amazon.”
I said, “You’re crazy because Amazon has all the data and that is where the web is going and it’s obvious to me,” and I was right again.
When I left the company in 2017, or at the end, it was almost full six full years, people said “You’re crazy for leaving Amazon.”
It’s a pretty intense place to work. Six years of 60 and 70 hour work weeks kind of loses its appeal after a while, and I was burnt out.
I moved back to the states from London and set to writing this book with the notion that people running businesses, or another good strong audience for this book would be startups. This is how you’re going to have to operate to be able to compete. If you think that Amazon’s coming for you next, it’s not the way Amazon views it.
Amazon is only there to do one thing, and that’s improve customer experience. If that happens to walk into your business sector, you’re going to have to learn what the engine is behind that company.
They’re not trying to destroy anybody, they’re just trying to improve customer service. The customer experience with low prices, wide selection, fast delivery. To me, looking back, it was such a fascinating six years, simply because we would learn things when the rest of the world learned. We would just be routinely amazed at this one company doing all of these things.
We’re seemingly disparate, but always held true to a culture that is customer obsessed. When I left, I knew that a lot of companies think they’re customer obsessed. I’ve never seen anything like this ever. Companies need to learn what it is that’s driving Amazon success.
I tie that back to the customer and the four currencies that money, information, loyalty, and time are important to everyone.
Money is the most popular currency, information is the most powerful, loyalty is the amplifier currency, and time is the only finite currency, which makes it the most valuable.
By using Amazon’s approach to operational design and management philosophies, I tie everything the company does back to the customer’s money, information, loyalty, and time. It’s just that simple. Nothing is simpler or more difficult in modern business to then to adopt these approaches.
But at least I give people a really thorough roadmap on what the gears are and how they turn, and they are relentless gears at Amazon. They do not stop; it is an always-on innovation cycle.
Rae Williams: Are these things that you’re suggesting that everyone put into their individual businesses?
Steve Susi: I do, and I say, “Adopt this approach and become an Amazon of one and people will be naturally drawn to you because of the success that you’re going to drive and it’s easy, it’s goals and programs and leadership principles ad a customer first methodology.”
I imagine somebody who is maybe in their early 50s and they want to move to the highest level in their corporation. Imagine a big telecom company for instance. What can I do personally to make it to that next level before my retirement?
Or you’re a 20 something that just won some angel funding for your tech startup. How am I going to operate from day one to emulate that success—because it’s in built in all of us. It’s in our DNA.
It’s not easy to do, it’s hard, and it’s a commitment. It’s got to be culture wide.
Rae Williams: What do you suggest is the first step that businesses take?
Steve Susi: Step one, it comes down to the human level, which I’ve always joked, we have to hack the human system first. Hacking the human system involves for the first cohort, the tech startup folks. They have to identify what their core values are, articulate those values in leadership principles, and hire against those leadership principles using the bar raiser method. Which is everybody that comes to that door has to answer their questions, graded along those leadership principles. How they demonstrate them in their responses to your interview questions. And then everybody has to be better than 50% of the existing organization. That’s the first group.
That’s hacking the human system for incoming. When it’s the gentleman that’s had a long career and is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, maybe five to 10 years left, it’s kind of the opposite.
Instead of people coming in, which applies to the tech startup folks, it’s making sure that the organization starts with, who is the baseline in my org? Let’s say I have a hundred people in my organization? Who is that 50thpercentile? Identify everybody above and below that line. This is what bar raising is all about, and then everybody below has to, their managers have to commit to a performance improvement program of some form that adheres to the company’s vision, and that employee must be told that this is a short window where you’re going to be evaluated against these principles.
What I’m seeing is, at big traditional corporate monoliths, there are a lot of people that don’t want to be noticed. They just are there to collect a paycheck. That is so damaging. It does two things. Number one, kills morale, and number two, it bloats the expense of the company so that the customer picks up this tab. That’s a quick way to go out of business. For the younger side of folks, it’s about who you’re bringing in and how you’re evaluating them.
For the older side of the folks, those people need to evaluate who they’re surrounded by and either improves the ones that are below the bar and reward those that are above the bar and then for every person that leaves, you have to apply the same bar raiser method that the tech startups do.
It comes down to the individual human being, are they selfless, are they know it alls? That kind of stuff, and at Amazon, everybody’s your customer, your coworkers are your customer, the person watching Amazon studios original content is your customer, your boss is your customer, everybody’s your customer, which turns the whole experience into one of really modest servitude.
Everybody is everybody else’s customer. The big bloated old companies that are on their way out. They’re just a collection of individuals, so the real secret is the people you’re hiring and the people that you might need to let go.
Where We Need Help
Rae Williams: Of these four currencies, which is the one that you think that people kind of mess up on or lack the most in?
Steve Susi: Time is the most valuable simply because we all know that, when we’re forced to shake hands with, as I write in the book, with father time. When we lose a loved one, we don’t know when that day is going to be. Wasting the customer’s time is what I see to be the biggest mistake in business today.
Commit yourself to the very first thing that you do is to innovate to save the customer time.
Because Jeff Bezos knew before the first line of code was written. The company that saves the customer money using information will drive loyalty and save the customer time. He was the first one to put them all together.
Time is where I see a lot of companies not investing properly and not prioritizing. Think of all of the times you’ve waited on hold.
On average, a media metrics company, I forget the name, they did a study. The average American waits on hold for 43 days during their lives. I make the allusion, if your corporation is spending all its money on lobbying DC lawmakers and underfunding your call centers, you may as well start rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, because you’re toast.
Time is one that we see is wasted on behalf of the customer. I also strongly admonish the reader to remember, you can’t operate quickly on behalf of the customer outside if you’re not operating quickly inside. So that means, I go into depth about meetings and how they’re structured.
Unnecessary meetings are no, poorly written emails, no, because we can’t innovate and save the customer time if we’re not saving our own.
That’s another thing that this big companies that are being “disrupted,” even though I don’t like using that word in that context, they don’t understand. The first thing they have to get right is saving the customer time because it’s the most valuable.
Does Anyone Get It Right?
Rae Williams: What area do you think that people actually excel at?
Steve Susi: No one. No one’s getting any of them right per se. Money seems to be wasted routinely on legal, not prioritizing the customer’s money, information is mishandled and it’s also the most powerful currency. I go into a story about the guy who invented the first 3D printed gun, you know—ones and zeroes can kill you.
But also, you see big data breaches, Yahoo, the misinformation stuff from Cambridge Analytical and Facebook, I address all those. Information is really difficult to keep safe.
The hackers only have to be right once, so you have to be right 100% of the time.
Amazon does a great job with information, and it drills, almost religiously fervor, it drills information security into every single employee at every level. It is almost a religion.
Loyalty, I think a lot of companies believe they have higher loyalty than they actually do. A lot of them are trailing lagging indicators, like churn rate for their customers.
And the problem is they don’t realize that that is a lagging indicator, which means the people that have just left your customer base because they are dissatisfied with whatever reason, you started to annoy them or displease them at least six months ago. So, these companies can only be reactive, never proactive.
Once you are on the wrong side of the equation, it is next to impossible to catch up.
You look at the loyalty score. Who routinely tops these brand surveys as USAA, talk about loyalty. So, if you ask who is doing it right, USAA and Navy Federal Credit Union are stalwarts of loyalty.
Who ranks the lowest, the telecom and cable and wireless companies that averages in the industry as zero? The scores can range from negative 20 to 80. The whole industry averaged out at zero, and they’ve been around the longest. I mean look at AT&T’s stock symbol—it is one single letter. You know you are an old company when your stock symbol is a single letter.
And so, there’s driving loyalty to enable forgiveness when you screw up because you are going to screw up because companies are just bodies of people and people are error prone. It is just going to happen. So if you are not working to increase your loyalty currency, when you make a mistake, that could be the end of your company.
I go into one example is Chipotle, which just routinely makes headlines with food borne illnesses and outbreaks, and you have to wonder how much loyalty can the almighty burrito generate before that company goes under?
And then time, it depends on what kind of company or industry you’re in, but time is the one I also feel people don’t really recognize just how important time is to the success of your business and helping customers make the best decisions as quickly as possible.
That is everything from overstaffing your call centers to an extra line at the car rental counter. Overstaffing your call centers is not cheap, but there are small things that you can do to save time that are so obvious, and companies don’t even lift a finger to do it. It is so disrespectful to waste the customer’s time.
So, I think those are areas where I see a few winners like I mentioned USAA, but everywhere else, I am not finding any companies that are really knocking it out of the park in money, loyalty, and time, other than Amazon.
Leadership Drives Currency
Rae Williams: How does leadership come into this? What is leadership’s role in making sure that companies are successfully delivering on all four currencies?
Steve Susi: It has to start at the top. This is nothing new to your listener or my reader, but it has to be relentlessly drilled from the top. Every single employee is judged along the exact same no matter what level at the company you are. If you are Bezos or if you are somebody that works the fulfillment center or me or my advertising folks, we are all great at the exact same way at the exact same time. So it has to be a uniform culture.
Leadership comes into that because it comes down to the manager. I had a number of people reporting to me for years, and it is of grave importance to understand your role in professional development of ensuring that your people know what they are evaluated against.
Reward them when they demonstrate leadership principles, coach them when they don’t, from the very bottom to the very top.
I mean my boss’s boss once shared with me that he remembers he has gotten a few dings in his past, but needed to hear those things. Because they’re all about the leadership, the 14 leadership principles, if you index highly in some areas and not in others, you are rewarded for the first areas and coached in the second areas.
Unfortunately for some people the coaching doesn’t take hold and they’re asked to move on. So, that is one thing that I can say. It is definitely an intense environment, but it is fair because you know what you are getting into when you start and everybody is evaluated along the same mechanisms.
And that comes down to the manager who ensures that. The individual contributor won’t do it until they have been there for long enough where it becomes second nature. The only way it becomes second nature is if it is just repeated and challenged and rewarded, so that there are never-ending questions. You know where you stand, and these leadership principles are not corporate huey as I write in the book.
When I first got there I thought, “People don’t really operate like this.” Oh yes, they do, and it comes down to the individual and that person’s manager adhering strictly to those leadership principles.
Bias for Action
Rae Williams: Do you have any examples of maybe smaller businesses or people that you work with that have gotten the most out of this principle?
Steve Susi: Let me think here. Well here is a good one, so these principles they are about relentlessly innovating on behalf of the customer. So, in the book, I describe what goals and programs are. I make this metaphorical smartphone—and I will get to your answer here in a moment, but this will provide some context.
So, if you are familiar with Star Trek, there is this big intergalactic monolithic villain called the Borg, and it goes around and it consumes planets and ships, except for the Enterprise of course.
And it assimilates everything that alien culture did for itself and it makes it even stronger and stronger. People like to joke that Amazon is a Borg. It is going around just like this weird corporate winner take all death match. I make the analogy, no, it is not a Borg.
Think of Amazon as a smart phone. The leadership principles are its operating system. The features and functions of this fictional phone are programmed. The apps are goals and the customer is the battery.
And so, we took advantage, I came up with innovate, iterate, automate when I coached my teams, and that’s an approach to doing something. If it doesn’t work, you run right back through the door. Jeff Bezos calls this the two-way door theory. Try something, if it doesn’t work, you come back, report on it so that nobody else makes the mistake that you did and waste time and keep moving. So, bias for action is one of the leadership principles.
I personally benefited from it when I had come up with an idea that was borne from a report, internal report that we get two reports a year, OP1 and OP2, which stands for operational planning one and operational planning two. I saw a report that one of the core key performance metrics or key performance indicators or KPIs, one of the core KPIs of our division was routinely challenged and often not met.
While I can’t explain it, I had an idea.
Let us take an existing technology that belongs to Amazon and innovate on top of it and see if we could help solve for that challenge that our business has faced. So, bias for action leadership principle. I went ahead, I didn’t ask for anybody’s permission. I just went ahead and started a program around this, and we established goals to hit, and I handpicked a team—and this is in addition to all the other stuff they are doing. We built a tech demo and a proof of concept.
I put it in front of my boss, my boss put it in front of his boss. He became my executive sponsor and I ended up winning an Amazon Inventor Award because it was sent to the US Patent and Trademark Office.
So, demonstrating bias for action is if you think you can solve a problem that is going to make the customer experience, in this case our advertisers, to improve that customer experience then you are expected to not ask questions, not ask for permission, you just go.
I was the beneficiary of that leadership principle, and so were two of my colleagues who I picked to be on my program team, and we won the award. It was the first such award in our division outside the United States, and I am extremely proud of it. In fact, you can see it on the book cover, it looks like a latex puzzle piece. So that is one good example of just move forward. If it doesn’t work, come right back to that two-way door, tell people so they don’t screw up in the same way, then keep moving.
A Challenge from Steve Susi
Rae Williams: So what would you challenge your readers or our listeners to do to get this started, to get their brand currency correct?
Steve Susi: There are mirror companies and there are window companies. Mirror companies are self-absorbed. They are only looking at themselves. Throw out your mirrors and the company culture. Everything is a window now.
You have to look out, challenge your whole organization to throw out their mirrors and only look through windows out at the customer, number one. Sounds easy, but old habits die hard. If people are constantly trying to please the shareholders, they’re doomed. And the irony being their shareholders will be worth zero.
Forget about the shareholders. Forget about everything else, just focus your lens solely on the customer and you are going to win every single time. Forget about your competitors.
That sounds hard to do, but it is astonishingly easy. Don’t talk about competitors, don’t emulate them, don’t even think about them. Forget your shareholders, these big companies that, “oh we have to please the shareholders.”
I say get rid of PTS, please the shareholders, and replace them with please the customer. So those are old habits that die hard, but that is what I challenge the reader to do.
I also challenge him or her to write down one goal and tell people about it. Tell your significant other or tell your boss, tell your best friends. The things you tell other people you end up holding yourself to them a lot more than if you keep it to yourself. So, start a goal. It is easy, it’s free. Or start a program.
But make sure they are tied to the four currencies, and then communicate it. When you broadcast it out to the world you have a better chance of holding yourself to it. So, those are the first early challenges that I would offer the reader, which is this isn’t hard to understand, but it is much harder to do if you haven’t seen it in action. So, be the Amazon of one by doing it yourself.
Don’t ask permission—usually 70% of the data is all that you need to make an informed decision, and just move quickly because time is ticking.
Rae Williams: How do we get in touch with you so that we can ask more questions?
Steve Susi: I’d be happy to correspond with any of your listeners via my LinkedIn page. It is an easy search, just search for Steve Susi and the URL is linkedIn.com/in/stevesusi.