I’ve been conducting an informal poll among friends and acquaintances asking if they’ve heard of Amazon Mayday. I’ve been surprised to find the answer is almost a unanimous no (excluding people at work), but when I reference the talking head in the advertisement many then change their answer to yes.

You may be thinking who cares, but I predict in five years we will look at the introduction of Amazon Mayday as the catalyst that changed customer service forever. I recognize that that’s a big statement, and even bigger when you consider my first thought upon seeing the Amazon Mayday commercial was “gimmick,” but I have reasons why I believe that statement.

The introduction of Amazon Mayday has sparked a debate amongst those who offer and run customer service operations. On one side there is the traditional thought that offering personalized one-to-one live video support is simply not cost effective. These people also point out that they wouldn’t put the vast majority of their customer service agents in front of a camera.

On the other side of the debate are those that see the value of the service, both to the organization offering customer support and to the customer, goes far beyond a talking head. Before I go further, maybe it is best to outline what Amazon Mayday entails as a reference point.

The Mayday button was introduced with the Kindle Fire HDX. When you tap the Mayday button you are connected directly to an Amazon customer service representative. Amazon’s goal is to answer Mayday calls in 15 seconds or less, and as of April 2014 they were achieving a 9.75 second response rate.

When you connect with Amazon Mayday, you are able to see the Mayday support person live on your screen. The support person can see what you see on your screen, but they don’t see you. For security purposes the support person will ask you to verify your identity before offering assistance. You can drag and drop the Mayday support window anywhere on the screen, but it always stays visible at the top layer.

Once the support person has verified your identity and assessed your issue they guide you through features on your Kindle Fire by drawing on your screen and teaching you how to use the features yourself. Amazon Mayday support personnel can optionally take control of your screen and even change settings, but only when you give them your permission.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, equated the experience to going into a store for tech support. “If you went to some physical store location to ask for help for your device, they’re going to see everything,” said Bezos. Getting good tech support isn’t easy, but it’s important,” he said.

Now that you’ve gotten an overview of Amazon Mayday let’s get back to the debate about the value. Scott Brown, Director of Customer Service at Amazon said, “When we set out to invent the Mayday button, we wanted to revolutionize tech support – and we’re happy to report it’s working!”

The question is why is it working? Most management in customer service had a similar reaction to me, and thought this is just a gimmick. This point of view is shaped by years of running contact centers like math lab experiments. To better understand this let’s take a quick look at what customer service operations typically measure:

  • Agent Productivity – This metric looks at how efficiently a call center agent spends their time while “clocked in.”
  • Call Backlog – This measures the volume of calls handled versus the number of callers waiting for a support agent.
  • Call Abandonment – This is a measure of the percentage of people that give up while waiting for a customer support agent by hanging-up the phone or leaving a chat session.
  • Call Resolution – This is a measure of calls resolved on first contact versus those that take many contacts.
  • Average Call Time – This is the amount of time the agent spends on an average call.
  • Customer Satisfaction – This is typically measured by a short survey of the customer at the end of a support call.

The key is to balance cost versus customer satisfaction. Most mature high volume customer service organizations average 98.5% to 99.5% satisfied customers. When you reach this stage you start trading off one-tenth of a percent of customer satisfaction for a cost reduction.

Contact centers do everything in their power to avoid one-to-one sessions with the customer, as this is the most expensive part of support. Go to any mature support organization and you’ll notice that they make you search for a solution in their knowledge base before engaging a live support person.

Even when you engage support it is typically through a web form or chat. Support centers like chat because agents can multi-task across multiple calls and it is easier to hide the fact that support is often offshore.

If you’re living in this world your first thought on Amazon Mayday is it will increase my cost and any increase in customer satisfaction won’t outweigh this. You’re never going to satisfy 100% of the customers anyway, and this will likely increase the backlog and average call time.

So what’s the other side of this coin look like? Being in a business offering a platform for adding video support, we were anxious to see Amazon Mayday in action, so we got our hands on a Kindle Fire and used the Mayday button.

The support agent appeared almost instantaneously on the device and asked us how she could help. We told her we wanted to rent a movie, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. She walked us through the process step by step, circling buttons and having us tap them until we found and rented the movie.

After the call all I could think about was how much better this experience was than any customer support I had ever received for any product. I could easily tell that Amazon was going to build better customer relationships online. Now let’s put Amazon Mayday against the criteria that support centers use to measure themselves and see how it stands up:

  • Was the agent productive and was the call resolved quickly? Will this increase or decrease my average call time? – The agent’s ability to quickly understand my issue, see my context, and walk me through to a resolution was enhanced by seeing where I was starting on my device and being able to talk to me live.
  • Would this increase or decrease my call backlog? – If the Mayday agent can get in and out of the call quickly it should only decrease my backlog.
  • Would it increase or decrease call abandonment – Call abandonment takes two forms: waiting for the support person, and then the actual interaction in resolving the issue. If my wait time increases to get to a support person my abandon rate will be higher.
    • Live support doesn’t lend itself to multitasking, so this is a negative. On the other hand customers are much less likely to hang-up on someone they can see versus chat or even a phone conversation.
  • Customer Satisfaction – Right here lies the problem, if I already have a 99.5% satisfaction rating why would I do this? It isn’t going to get me to 100%, and I’ll likely have to recruit new agents to support it.

It’s that last metric that cause many in customer support to stop thinking about how to improve customer service and to focus myopically on reducing cost. The real question they should be asking themselves is, if I don’t do this and my competitor does will I lose customers?

Response to Amazon Mayday has been almost unanimously positive from users and reviewers alike. Amazon’s competitors such as Apple and Samsung are now working to integrate similar features on their tablets. Amazon has simply changed the game and now competitors have no choice but to react.

This isn’t just a game changer for tablet manufacturers, it is going to ripple through every industry offering online support. This is why I believe Amazon Mayday is not just a gimmick, but will change customer service as we know it forever.

As a customer, would being able to share your screen and talk directly to a person improve your experience?