Start with the customer and work backward. That’s how Amazon’s Colin Puckett explained the secret of the online retailer’s success to those attending the 2018 MAFSI Sales and Marketing Conference in Naples, Fla.

Since its launch in April of 2015, Amazon’s business-to-business (B2B) base has grown to more than 1 million customers, Puckett said. And it shows no signs of slowing down. Amazon expects its B2B business to be larger than its consumer business because businesses spend more.

Amazon continues to grow so fast by never taking its eye off its two core principles. First, Amazon remains true to its vision of trying to be the most customer-centric company in the world, Puckett said. Second, it never stops trying to innovate. In doing so, Amazon listens to what customers tell us they need and innovate around that, Puckett said.

Today people can use their devices and computers to order whatever they want and have it delivered quickly in their personal lives. Amazon understands people want that type of experience in their professional lives, too. True, businesses buy and sell goods differently than consumers, but that does not mean the experience has to be slow and cumbersome.

Amazon developed ways to automate workflow to make it easier for companies to manage their spending and conduct business using its platform. As such, Amazon now offers business pricing, quantity discounts, enhanced content such as user guides and price manuals and much more. In other words, Amazon developed tools to help its platform work within the rules of a customer’s business.

There’s a demand in the restaurant industry for an Amazon-like experience, specifically around foodservice equipment and supplies, Puckett added.

Amazon did not get here by accident. As Puckett said, every one of the company’s innovations started with a customer saying “We love you but ...”

Prior to this MAFSI presentation at the end of January, Amazon’s impact on the restaurant industry had been confined to hushed conversations. Puckett’s presentation to hundreds of members of the foodservice industry dragged the Amazon issue into the mainstream discussion. The post-presentation interpretations ranged from depressingly fatalistic to almost Pollyannaish optimism. Some felt the presentation foretold the end of reps. Others felt it signaled the end is near for dealers. Oddly enough, everyone seemed to ignore the operator in their assessments.

From my perspective, one thing remains clear: Amazon serves as proof positive that people’s preferences are no longer defined by their personal and professional lives. As such, customers will reward those companies that provide value on their terms and not the other way around.

To keep up with more sophisticated competitors, like Amazon, all members of the industry — operators included — may not need to develop a sophisticated e-commerce platform. They will, however, need to do a better job of listening, probing their customers to determine their challenges and mine the data already available to them to provide meaningful goods and services.