A look inside the wacky world of Zappos, where strong culture drives profits

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How a strong culture drives profits

After reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, I was determined to take the tour. Zappos has a long standing policy of allowing people to tour their corporate offices. All you have to do is get yourself to Las Vegas and a friendly Zappos staffer will come pick you up in one of their spiffy Zappos tattooed Kias. What follows is a pictorial account of my Zappos experience. Enjoy! 

Zappos Tour Kia Taxi

My time was limited on the Monday morning I was scheduled to be picked up for the tour. I flew into Las Vegas the night before for the 2012 Marina Recreation Association conference which I would attend the following day. I only had two hours available for the tour because I had an appointment at the SuperNAP next. Talk about contrast. I went from the free spirited, come as you are, speak your mind freely world of Zappos, to one of the most sophisticated data centers on the planet where an armed guard follows you wherever you go and photos are strictly prohibited.

When you first walk into Zappos you get sucked into the happy vibe. Everyone seems to be happy, but not in a milk-toast-Cinderella way. It’s more edgy, off the wall and free spirited. For instance, if you arrive for the tour or for an interview wearing a tie, they will cut it off. I asked the receptionist how many people have refused to get them cut. She said she knew of two and both were situations where the wife had given the husband the tie as a gift.

 Zappos tie wall

Our host on the tour was Renea Witherspoon. Her title is Culture Fireball. It is her job to imbibe us with the Zappos Way in less than 2 hours. We started with a presentation on the 10 Zappos core values. They are displayed everywhere. I could write a post on each one, but the first one is really their secret sauce.

Deliver WOW Through Service

It may seem like all fun and games at Zappos, but the concept of “Delivering WOW Through Service” is serious business here. While many companies consider their technology as their platform, at Zappos delivering WOW is their platform. This philosophy is quite different from that of Zappos’ parent company Amazon who prides itself on their proprietary software and distribution processes.

It is the total immersion in the core values that makes Zappos, well “Zappos”. They eat, sleep and breathe their core values. They publish an annual Culture Book each year that is free to anyone for the asking where each employee (and in some cases suppliers) talk about a particular core value and what it means to them.

The whole point of the tour, the core values, no offices, free food and a resident personal coach is to attain “employee engagement and empowerment”. She repeated this phrase over and over as if it were tattooed on her brain.

As you can see from the pics there are no traditional offices at Zappos.

Zappos Chewbacca display

 

Zappos offices green streamers

Tony and the executive team don’t have private offices either. They are right in the middle of the action.

 

Zappos executive row

To spread the culture in a company-wide team setting, Tony holds an All Hands meeting once per quarter. During these meetings customer support is closed. Renea said the meetings can last up to 4-hours. There are conference rooms for those impromptu or weekly staff meetings all companies tend to have. The conference rooms (along with the bathrooms) seem to be the only place you will find a door.  

Zappos conference room

There are break rooms as well where you can lay around on bean bags or hit the punching bag if you are so inclined. 

Lounge area at Zappos

For a company that sells shoes you would think that shoes would be everywhere, but not really. I only found one “shoe showcase” so to speak, as well as a similar showcase area for clothing.

Big shoes on display at Zappos

 

 

Zappos clothing display

The teams are encouraged to decorate their areas anyway they want. I went there a couple of weeks after Halloween. You wouldn’t know it from these photos but Renea said they had taken most of the Halloween stuff down. Most of the team’s pick a theme (eg Pirates) and then decorate accordingly. After a year they get a license plate with their name on it that they can hang anywhere showing off their one-year anniversary. Also halls have street signs so people can be found if they move. In the Live Chat area below you can see the license plates with the CLT members names on them.

Zappos live chat

Here’s the thing. If you are easily distracted Zappos would not be a good place for you to work. I asked Renea what it’s like in the development area (a place off limits from the tour) adding that it’s got to be quiet there. She said it was more laid back but still a bit nutty. Digging further I asked what it’s like working in an open environment whereby no one has an office. How do you concentrate when you are talking to a customer and the person to the left and to the right are also on the phone? Her answer was “that’s part of the culture”. She added that some people can’t hack it and if you are one that needs a quiet place to concentrate Zappos might not be the best fit for you.

Everyone at Zappos, regardless of the job they are hired for spends 2 weeks in customer service. You are paid for your time. But at the end of the two week period you are given a choice of quitting and collecting $2,500 or staying. Something like 3% of the new hires take the cash and run. Further proof that Zappos only wants people that are really committed to the culture and company. 

Zappos intern training area

In order to build employee trust and camaraderie, Zappos created Zollars. Zollars are fake money that can only be earned if someone gives you one. If you stay late and help someone they may give you a Zollar. If you take care of a co-workers dog over the weekend this too could earn you some Zappos loot. Zollars can be used in the Zollar Store to buy real stuff.

What’s the Key to Delivering WOW Service?

To deliver WOW through service, Zappos has set up numerous Customer Loyalty Teams (CLT). The people who work with customers on the phone and via email are the linchpins in the Zappos strategy. They are the face of the company, the medium by which the public and Zappos communicate. These folks are given lots of freedom to do what it takes to make the customer happy. Tony describes many of these stories in his book about loyalty members spending hours on the phone with one customer to help them with shoe selection or the famous story of the team member who actually flew to a bride’s wedding to hand deliver her shoes when the original batch she ordered didn’t work out.

Zappos customer loyalty team lead 

Jessica, an Exuma staff member, says that she will often times buy shoes from Zappos without price shopping them at all. Because of the positive experiences she’s had shopping at Zappos.com, she knows they will be there quickly with free shipping both ways should she need to return something. Every interaction she has had with them has been amazing. I wish I could say that about my company. Can you say that about yours? Jessica knows she has likely paid more but she simply doesn’t care because the service is so predictable and enjoyable.

Zappos can deliver exemplary service because CLT members are given a lot of freedom to choose how they help their clients. This goes beyond discretionary free overnight shipping and can be as extravagant as personally flying to a wedding. The “stories” of these heroic customer service tales is what builds the brand. As these stories spread from one person to another, the Zappos culture grows in value.

How much leeway do you give your team to make your customers happy? Do they have to come to you for approval for every perk?
Zappos has a come as you are dress code, as long as you aren’t indecent I presume. Below is a picture of the a quality manager wearing a wizard or witches hat from the Harry Potter series.

Zappos quality witch

The teams are encouraged to decorate their areas anyway they want. I went there a couple of weeks after Halloween. You wouldn’t know it from these photos but Renea said they had taken most of the Halloween stuff down. Most of the team’s pick a theme (eg Pirates) and then decorate accordingly. After a year they get a license plate with their name on it that they can hang anywhere showing off their one-year anniversary. Also halls have street signs so people can be found if they move. In the Live Chat area below you can see the license plates with the CLT members names on them.

Zappos live chat  

Aside from the customer service stories that enrich the brand and keep customers coming back, Zappos has also figured out how to turn a lot of volume. When you are selling millions of shoes each year you are going to get a large influx of customer service calls and emails. Metrics do matter at Zappos and they track everything from Total Calls, Average Speed of Answer, Abandoned Calls, to Emails Received/Resolved as well as the personal growth and learning goals of the team.  

Zappos Customer Loyalty Team Dashboard 

The record number of calls at Zappos was the day after Christmas 2011 with 17,217. I’ll bet they top that one this year.

Zappos owns 6pm.com a discount site where you can find name brands for as much as a 50% discount. The pic below shows their area and even though separation is created with the frames of a cubicle wall, the panels have been replaced with black streamers.

No cubical panels at 6pm.com

Zappos is a living experiment in work/life balance and the notion that work can be fun and profitable at the same time. Most companies can learn a lot from Zappos, ours is no exception. While the open streamer laden workspace may not be for everyone, taking customer service seriously by way of delivering happiness has proven to a profitable model for Zappos (and possibly for your company too). 

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