Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explains his famous one-character emails, known to strike fear in manager's hearts

Michael Seto/Business Insider
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos still personally reads customer complaint emails sent to him, even though he doesn’t reply to many of them, he said during an on-stage interview on Friday.
  • Often, he’ll forward those emails on to the executives in charge with a single character: a question mark.
  • The manager who receives the email is then on the hook to drop everything, research the situation, and write a well-crafted response.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a notorious habit of sending his executives an email which has a single character: a question mark.

When the executive gets an email from Bezos that simply says “?” they know that Bezos is concerned about something because a customer complained, Bezos explained during an on-stage interview at the George Bush Presidential Center on Friday.

“I still have an email address customers can write to,” Bezos explained. Although he doesn’t typically answer those emails himself, he does read them.

“I see most of those emails. I see them and I forward them to the executives in charge of the area with a question mark. It’s shorthand [for] can you look into this? Why is this happening?,” Bezos said.

Getting such an email is a pretty common thing at Amazon, and it’s also big deal. The executive, in turn, will often foward it along to the manager in charge of the area who will view the email with a sinking heart, one of them recently told us.

That’s because the manager is then on the hook to drop everything, investigate and get back with an answer. Sometimes that means a lot of research over nights and weekends, the Amazon manager recently told us.

But Bezos views that email address, [email protected], as a way to stay close to customers, which can otherwise be hard to do as an executive, who is far removed from day-to-day customer service and sees the company mostly through data and reports.

“We have tons of metrics,” Bezos explained on stage. “When you are shipping billions of packages a year, you need good data and metrics: are you delivering on time? Delivering on time to every city? To apartment complexes? … Whether the packages have too much air in them, wasteful packaging.”

So those customer complaints gives him front-line insights. If all of his data say one thing and a few customers say something else, he believes the customers.

“The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you are measuring it,” he explained.

This is one of the ways Bezos expresses what he calls one of Amazon’s most important values: customer obsession.

“We talk about it, customer obsession, as opposed to competitor obsession,” he said. Often companies say they are focused on customers but they really spend most of their energy reacting to and talking about competitors.

“If your whole culture is competitor-obsessed, it’s hard to stay motivated if you are out in front. Whereas customers are also unsatisfied, always discontent, always want more. So no matter how far in front you get in front of competitors, you are still behind your customers. They are always pulling you along,” he said.

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