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Imagine you buy a new server, say from Dell. The server works just fine for a couple of months. Then, you receive an email from Dell informing you that the model you bought is now available with SSDs at no additional cost. The first thing you think is, this is really great news, but I remember quite well that I unchecked the option to fill my inbox with unsolicited offers. You read ahead to find out how they could so brazenly ignore your wishes. To your surprise, in the next sentence you are informed that the SSDs are already on the way and that you shouldn’t hesitate to contact Dell if you have questions about installing the new SSDs.
Now you are really getting annoyed. They send you SSDs without an order? Is this a joke? Doesn’t Amazon have a patent on this crazy anticipatory shipping thing? While you start typing your angry reply, you hear someone knocking on your door. Before you realize what’s going on, you hold the brand new SSDs in your hands. “With compliments!” That’s the only message you found in the box. No invoice.
Only in IT wonderland, you say? Well, that is what just happened to me. Just that the generous IT company is not Dell, but Amazon. No, not the Amazon everything store—I am talking about Amazon Web Services.
I have to apologize for my longwinded intro, but I think one can only understand the significance of this incident if we relate this to conventional on-prem IT. What really happened is that I booked a Reserved EC2 Instance a couple of months ago. My instance type now supports two SSDs, and the email informed me that I can switch to this new generation at any time.
Perhaps even more interesting is that the email wasn’t an automated message. The sender field contained a real name and the real email address of an Amazon employee. The email text also indicated that the writer had enough time to have a look at some specifics of my account. For instance, he mentioned that the German website doesn’t show the change yet, but the email was in English even though it came from a German email address. So this employee from Amazon Germany knew that I am German and that I usually communicate in English with Amazon.
Of course, I had a few questions, not so much because of the SSDs but because I was curious why a little AWS customer who just runs one tiny EC2 instance gets so much attention. The reply arrived a few hours later. One question was a bit technical, so the sales representative involved a solutions architect. I had an additional question that prompted an even more detailed answer from an Amazon engineer. In the course of this email communication, I was even offered a conference call if I had more technical questions.
If this was just one case, you could attribute it to an ambitious Amazon employee. However, this is was not the first time since I’ve been working with AWS.
When my Reserved Instance was about to expire a few months ago, I decided to move to a bigger server. I was just finished with the installation when I received an email reminding me about the expiration date of my instance. This was a personalized email as well. It started with, “My name is likewise Michael…” You might say that it is normal to receive a sales pitch shortly before a subscription expires that is not automatically renewed. However, Amazon would earn more if I missed the expiry date of my Reserved Instance because then I would automatically pay the higher on-demand rate. Moreover, such reminders are usually only automatically generated messages if a small business is involved.
The first time I had a positive experience with the AWS customer service was a couple of years ago when I had serious problems with a server running on EC2 that crashed without apparent reason every two days or so. At about the same time, someone from Amazon approached me because of an old blog post advising me that my critique is no longer valid because of recent changes in AWS. I thanked the sender of the email and mentioned in passing that I am currently fighting with an EC2 issue.
I was then introduced to a senior support engineer who helped me track down the problem for a week or two. We exchanged quite a few emails with numerous log files and speculations of what could be causing the crashes. In the end, it turned out that it was a bug in a relatively new Ubuntu release. Notice that I had no AWS support contract.
The last incident was certainly related to the fact that I was an IT blogger, although 4sysops was a relatively small blog and just a one-man show at that time. Thus, it was obvious that this kind of engagement was somewhat unusual. The fact that a lonely blogger receives an email from a multibillion-dollar company because of a long-forgotten blog post is amazing.
Of course, behind all this is the unmatched passion for customer service of the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos. Amazon has not only a significant lead as a cloud provider; as an online retailer, the company has decades of experience bringing customer experience to perfection.
I believe that Amazon’s competition is quite aware of this and tries to catch up. If Steve Ballmer still had the motivation, in one of his next very entertaining performances he would probably jump across the stage, shouting “customers, customers, customers…” However, the top management’s decision to follow Amazon’s lead and transform a license-focused company to a service-oriented business doesn’t necessarily translate to better customer service from one day to the next.
Providing outstanding customer service is much more complex than conjuring data centers out of thin air with the help of the magic of billions of cash dollars. The passion for happy customers (and not just shareholders) has to be in a company’s DNA, and gene therapy for businesses has not yet been invented. It is not enough if only support and sales are costumer focused. This philosophy has to penetrate the whole company, including engineering.
Just to give you one example, I meanwhile received three automatically generated and confusing “service alerts,” startling me that I have to update my Office 365 MX records to avoid “service disruption” even though, after posting in an Office 365 forum, I got the confirmation from Microsoft support that my MX records are just fine.
I have to admit that Microsoft’s response was prompt, too. So, you see, the ambition in Microsoft’s support already exists. But I don’t understand why I get three emails about the same issue and every time the contents of the “alert” is unrelated to my configuration. Doesn’t Microsoft have enough “DevOps” who can script emails that take the particular setup of their customers into account?
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Please share your experiences with Amazon’s customer service or one of their competitors in a comment below.