Thursday 5 March 2020

Book binding

The notion of the customer relationship seems to be going out of fashion a little, perhaps muted by the increasing volume of "consumers don't want to have a relationship with your brand"-type clickbait headlines in marketing articles. Or maybe due to the obsessional focus on "the customer experience". But long-term experience, relationship, call it what you will is what this post is about.

Amazon is one of those brands that made a huge difference to my life. I often wonder whether it's the brand itself or the generic service of an online bookstore, but if so, Amazon was certainly the right brand in the right place for me in the late 1990s. No longer did I have to trek into Frankfurt to buy books in English. And in the early 2000s, as my son was young, Amazon was a godsend, both for the latest children's books and for tracking down old favourites from my childhood to read to him.

I started reviewing relatively late into my Amazon relationship - I've tracked down my first review, which was in May 2006. In the following 14 years, I've contributed over 300 reviews, mostly books, with the occasional CD or DVD thrown in. My reviews were always intended more for my own reference, but I was flattered when others commented on them or found them helpful. I had a brief season of fame as a Top 1000 reviewer, and was amassing 30, 40, 50, 60 helpful votes on each review on a regular basis. I felt valued, not just in terms of my custom, but also for my contribution and opinions.

It all started to go sour about six or seven years ago. Ratings, and putting a work of literature on the same level as a piece of cable or a packet of paper napkins, fake reviews, world domination, dubious business practices ... Amazon seemed far removed from the benevolent bookseller of the early days.

I carried on posting reviews, but with less enthusiasm. My Top 1000 crown had slipped, maybe because I wasn't reviewing the popular books, and maybe because I was only reviewing books, and not pieces of cable or packets of paper napkins. I started hearing reports about reviews being deleted if Amazon's algorithms detected a relationship (ha!) between the reviewer and the author.

Since October 2019, Amazon have made it official: ratings are what counts, reviews are by-the-by. And the star rating a book, or any other product, displays is not the simple average of all the ratings. Oh, no. That would be much too clear. Here's their explanation:

Amazon calculates a product’s star ratings based on a machine learned model instead of a raw data average. The model takes into account factors including the age of a rating, whether the ratings are from verified purchasers, and factors that establish reviewer trustworthiness.

Given that Amazon's ethos is about shiny new things, I seriously doubt that ratings are like wine: the age factor is, in all likelihood, a negative one. So the rating accompanying my well-thought out review in 2008 will be factored down compared to a bot giving a one-tap rating yesterday.

And most recently, I haven't even been able to post reviews on at all, where they'd be most relevant, as I review English-language books. I can still post on as I spend more than I'd like to on books for my Kindle - but who is going to read my reviews there? Here's another example of Amazon making me feel like a valued customer, in their explanation as to why "this account has not met the minimum eligibility requirements to write a review":

To contribute to Community Features (for example, Customer Reviews, Customer Answers), you must have spent at least £40 on using a valid payment card in the past 12 months. Promotional discounts don't qualify towards the £40 minimum. You do not need to meet this requirement to post Customer Questions, create or modify Profile pages, Lists, or Registries, or to read content posted by other customers.

It's not one of the world's (or even my) most pressing problems, but it does make me nostalgic for what seemed in retrospect, like a Brave New World in the mid 2000s, where anything was possible.

I'm stuck with Amazon, mainly through my Kindle. I could give up on the reviews, and go back to just doing them for myself, or on a blog, or on GoodReads. I could try and extricate myself, buy a new e-reader and start again. But it's all too much of a faff. Amazon have got me where they want me - just another customer, bound-up and too apathetic to make a fuss. 

And that's what they mean by customer-centricity.

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