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Lessons from online restaurant giant, Amazon

Russell Baker

Amazon’s Russell Baker gave conference attendees at the Food On Demand Conference in Dallas in March advice on how to be customer obsessed like the large, but nimble, company he works for as general manager of Amazon Restaurants.

“Obsession is all in, it preoccupies or intrudes on your mind,” he said. “Customers always want more, so this forces you to invent things they don’t even know they need yet. So pay attention to details.”

For instance, “We noticed people are reordering the same thing from the same restaurant, so we put that at top (of the page), and programmed it into Alexa so you can say: “Alexa reorder,’” he said.

Amazon, he pointed out, was the first to do its own customer reviews online. “When we first did it, vendors hated it,” he said. “(Vendors asked) why would you put negative reviews on the product page? We said that if a customer has all the information they can make informed decisions.”

Plus, he added, reviews often have a “fun side” and allow customers to interact with the brand, the site and with each other. 

Another decision vendors didn’t understand at the time, but that has been a huge win for Amazon, is free delivery.

“Be bold and take calculated risks, you will make mistakes and learn from them,” Baker said. And if you go through a previously unopened door, know if you can go back through it, he said.

Has Amazon ever made a mistake? Baker talked briefly about their decision to allow third-party sellers to sell on their site. They created individual stores for each client, but customers didn’t want to go to each seller’s page, they wanted single-product pages with multiple offerings from several different stores so they could compare prices and shipping costs. 

“Read your customers’ reviews and social media posts," he suggested, adding that Amazon’s CEO reads them and then forwards negative ones on with a question mark—“an email you don’t want to get.” 

In other words, pay attention to competition, but obsess over customers. 

When It’s Legal, It All Circles Back to the Contract

Establishing a solid chain of control for your departing meals is even more important when a restaurant is using third-party delivery services, according to a panel at the FOD Conference. “If you do grocery delivery, for example, that chain of custody means I’m responsible,” Ryan Palmer, an attorney with Gray Plant Mooty, said.  But for a (third-party) delivery, who is at fault will be murkier waters.  “It’s going to depend on tamper-proof packaging, your ability to track that delivery,” he said. 

Palmer, who joked that his role on panels is that of the wet blanket, said that having a indisputable chain in place is one way to help mitigate liability in the event that someone gets sick from your food. Without it, “everyone is going to pass off that responsibility,” he added.

Delivery drivers are another source of legal worries. And because third-party delivery services are still relatively new, there isn’t a lot of historical data to help predict what is the norm. For instance, “if you employ drivers and they’re in an accident, you’re responsible,” Palmer said. “If he’s an independent contractor, it depends.” There are guidelines on what an independent contractor can and can’t do, and when they step over that line, the court could view them as an employee—which puts the liability back in your cash register. To access your liability with third-party drivers, Palmer said to look at your contracts, but to remember, if there is a car accident and someone is being sued, “it’s easier to drop people on a lawsuit than to add, so the restaurant will be added” when the lawsuit is first filed. 

Who owns the customer data, the restaurant or the delivery service, was also debated in a number of sessions. “It’s not as clear cut as people want it be,” Palmer said. Again, the answer should be in the contract between the two parties, he added. And if the contract allows for the sharing of the information, you need to have all the proper firewalls installed to protect that data. 

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