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What the government needs to learn from Jeff Bezos

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I'm with those who think it's great that Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. People who love newspapers and care about their role in a democracy can't wait to see what innovations he'll bring to the industry, especially in terms of news delivery and customer service.

And what is his first priority? "Put the customer first."

It's too bad the Amazon founder wasn't in charge of the federally run health insurance marketplaces. They'd look a lot different and also work, no doubt.

It's easy to think of Amazon as a mammoth retailer, a place that sells just about anything you can think of. But it's really a service company. It took upselling to unimagined levels by creating the "customers who viewed/bought this item also bought…" function and by pushing recommendations based on items you already purchased. And those features make you feel like Amazon is doing you a favor, not just trying to sell you more stuff.

Now the company is working hard on cutting delivery times to narrow the gap between your impulse "1-Click" buy and getting the item into your hands. And Kindle? Everyone I know, including me, half laughs as they admit to the number of books they've downloaded but never read, thanks to 1-Click and Whispernet. (I no sooner went on the Amazon site to check the spelling of "Whispernet" than they got me again. At least this was a one-day-free download.)

If Bezos ever figures out how to teleport merchandise into your home or office, the retail game is over.

Now imagine all that know-how and creativity brought to bear on the health insurance marketplaces. There'd be no crashes because too many people hit the sites at one time. No cognitive overload as customers struggle to parse out their options. There might even be a pop-up, real-time chat window with a navigator, such as a number of online retailers use to help you through your shopping process. And there'd be lots of customer ratings and reviews.

There'd also be no cumbersome requirement to create an account before you can browse the product offerings.

Let me ask you: If you have an e-commerce component to your business (or are pure-play online), do you ask your customers to give up personal information before they can see whether they want to buy from you?

I thought not.

A Wall Street Journal story Friday identified that pre-registration requirement as the feature that's created the tremendous bottleneck that marketplace shoppers encountered. If you missed Healthcare.Gov's Flaws Found, Fixes Eyed (and subscribe), you can read it here.

But it's not just a technical glitch – it's a major failure in understanding what people want and need in an online retail experience. Most of the people who flocked to the sites after they opened Oct. 1 just wanted information. And they couldn't get it.

Government is getting a lot of flack, too, in the IT community simply for the way it approaches technology in general.

"The U.S. government spends more than $80 billion a year for information-technology services, yet the resulting systems typically take years to build and often are cumbersome when they launch," reporters Craig Timberg and Lena H. Sun wrote last week in the Post.

Sound familiar? In July, the state Department of Labor & Industry announced it was killing the final phase of a project to update the unemployment compensation system because it was years behind and millions over budget – and didn't work.

That's no way to run a business, for sure. But will government officials learn from these all-too-common experiences?

If Jeff Bezos had designed Amazon to operate this way, the company would just be another failed dot.com memory from a decade ago, rather than an enterprise valued at more than $122 billion.

The week ahead

The upcoming Business Journal is a special issue devoted to higher education. Our staff offers ideas on how you can keep your skills up to date, as well as those of your team; talks to business leaders who are stepping in front of the whiteboard to share their expertise; and looks at how local educational institutions are partnering with the business community.

Also this week, the Inside Business focus is on high-end commercial and residential real estate. This week's lists are real estate investment trusts; residential real estate agencies; and commercial real estate agents.

Don't have a subscription? Click here.

Looking for this week's networking opportunities? Click here.

And I hope you don't miss our annual Forty Under 40 event Wednesday. For more information, click here.

The rewind

Last week, I wrote about how word choice can emotionally color an otherwise factual statement. Then I came across this article in which a health care industry publication explains why it decided to stick with the Patient Protection and Affordable Car act rather than "Obamacare" in its reporting. We at the Business Journal decided several months ago in the opposite direction, simply because more readers know the ACA by that term and it had begun to lose its political shading. What do you think?

Hope Stephan

Hope Stephan

Hope Stephan is editor of the Central Penn Business Journal. A Pennsylvania native, she is a graduate of Penn State and Xavier University. Have a question or tip for her? Email her at hopes@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @hstephan. Circle Hope Stephan on .

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