The other day, I received an interesting email from Amazon.

Lately, a friend and I have been getting together to watch movies online via the website is a video conferencing service that adds video, audio, and text chat streams to a virtualized web browser which can play video streams from nearly any web-accessible video service—YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.

That is to say, makes it possible for friends separated by physical distances to enjoy movies together from these services via the Internet. (And if you can rip DVDs or Blu-rays, you can even upload those movies to your Google Drive space and watch them together that way.) It works equally well for free or subscription services, or for one-off digital rentals.

The one problem has is that sometimes it doesn’t play completely well with such services; often when watching movies from Amazon or Google Drive, the player cuts out an hour or so into the movie, necessitating refreshing the page and re-launching the player to continue. But we shrug and deal with this, because it’s still the only way we can enjoy these movies together.

But to return to that email from Amazon, what it said was:


We noticed that you recently experienced poor video playback on Amazon Video. We’re sorry for the inconvenience, and have issued you a refund for the following rental(s) and amount(s):

$2.99 – The Big Sleep (1946), Season nullThe Big Sleep (1946)

While Amazon Video transactions are typically not refundable, we are happy to make an exception in this case. This refund should be processed within the next 2 to 3 business days and will appear on your next billing statement for the same credit card used to purchase this item.

Please visit our troubleshooting page for tips on ways you can potentially improve your viewing experience:

We hope to see you again soon,

Amazon Video Team

The particularly interesting thing about this letter is that I never asked for such a refund. In fact, as far as I had seen at the time, The Big Sleep had played perfectly well, barring that glitch where I had to relaunch the player a time or two. But not only did I receive this particular email, my friend received a similar refund email for another movie he had rented, The Lion in Winter. And he hadn’t requested a refund either.

So, what can we take from this? First of all, Amazon—or, at least, some automated system within Amazon—is watching how we watch movies we rent from it. Some people might find this disturbing from a privacy standpoint, but on the other hand, it stands to reason that any system where things could go wrong would have some kind of self-monitoring setup built in, just so it could tell if people were having trouble somewhere and a server needed to be rebooted or something.

But unlike many such services, Amazon has apparently empowered this system to act on what it sees. If it sees a video is having playback problems, it can decide to refund the rental price of that video, without even being asked. (Did someone human have to okay the refund? I have no way to know, of course, but find it doubtful that it would be worth paying a human to spend the extra time to audit every $2.99 refund.)

And from an economic point of view, it makes sense. Even if I had thought the video played poorly, it might not have been worth my time to request a refund of it. So by being proactive and refunding it without being asked, Amazon creates or reinforces the impression that it cares about my experience, making me all the more likely to purchase from Amazon in the future, and more likely to tell my friends I had a surprisingly good experience with the business rather than an annoyingly crummy one. All that potential extra loyalty, for just three bucks.

But that being said, I’m not writing this to gush about how awesome Amazon is—as it might expect the average consumer who just received an unexpected refund to do. I’m writing this to remark on how remarkably canny Amazon is.

Jeff Bezos, or his advisors, or whoever set up the system is smart enough to realize that even (or maybe especially) just little cheap things can have an impact on customer loyalty out of all proportion to what they actually cost. People don’t think, “Oh, yay, Amazon gave me $3 back. I can afford another coffee at Starbucks!” They think, “Wow, Amazon gave me a refund I didn’t even ask for, for a quality issue I didn’t even notice! They must really care about my experience!” And then they go and tell all their friends.

An extra three bucks is hardly going to affect the average monthly budget much—but as they say in gift-giving, it’s the thought that counts. Small wonder Amazon has grown into the powerhouse it now is: whether it really cares about the customer’s experience or not, it’s damned good at making the customers think it does.

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