Lessons on Culture and Service from Zappos

Me and Robert Richman of Zappos Insights

This week, I am at the International Spa Association annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I’ve been excited about this year’s conference because Tony Hsieh will be the keynote speaker on Wednesday.  I’ve been a fan of Tony’s for a while (see “Why Zappos is the Workplace Utopia of the 21st Century” and my article on  “Psychology Lessons from the CEOs”.   I also wrote a review of his book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose“ on Positive Psychology News Daily.)

Tony Hsieh spoke on a panel at ISPA in 2009 (video here) and I thought he stole the show (or at least had the most relevant applicable information to the audience with his message of focusing on the customer experience.)  I never thought I would be hearing from a shoe salesman at a spa conference (let alone twice) but it’s only fitting since Zappos has now been rated as the #1 customer service company in the world and they are known for their strong brand culture.

Zappos has (brilliantly, in my opinion) been trying to bottle and sell the magic behind their unique culture and brand through “Zappos Insights,” a new division of their company focused on teaching other businesses how to build their own brand culture.  On Sunday, I was able to spend some time with Robert Richman, the product manager for Zappos Insights to hear some of the secrets behind Zappos’ powerful culture.  Here are some of the key ideas that he shared:

1.  They stay connected to their history.  Let’s face it.  It’s hard for employees to connect to a large corporation.  But if people know the story of how it began, they can relate more to what went into making it so big and successful.  Zappos makes sure they tell their employees the details of how their massive warehouse (the size of 7 football fields) started in a small house in San Francisco.  The founder of the company (not Tony Hsieh) tested the concept by taking pictures of shoes at the local shoe store and putting them online.  When someone placed an order, he would walk back to the shoe store, buy the shoes, and drop them in the mail.  When employees hear how the business began, it becomes a success story that they want to be a part of.

2.  They have an evolving vision.  The Zappos community is always inspired by a lofty, but achievable goal that is reachable within a few years.  First they wanted to be the largest shoe store in the world (check.)  Then they wanted to have the best customer service in the world (check.)  Now they are working on being the best place to work in the world (in recent years they were rated by Fortune Magazine as #23, #15, and now #6 . . . almost there!)  And now they have announced their new vision of making Las Vegas into the best city and community in the world (going beyond their four walls now!)

3.  They are not focused on the customer.  This sounds ironic but as Richman says, their brand is about “service,” not “customer service.”  When it’s customer service it becomes “an act” that you put on when the customer walks in the door.  They believe in a culture of service that is inherent in the people that work there and exists 24/7 whether the customer is in the picture or not.

4.  There is a culture of discipline and accountability.  Most of the reports of Zappos are all about how much everyone loves it there and how much fun everyone has who works there.  But they take their brand and their values seriously.  Employees who do not exhibit those values are fired.  Period.  And they can afford to be pretty tough on this since they are getting hundreds of resumes a day from people who want to be a part of the Zappos magic. 

5.  Loose constraints, high integrity.  They don’t have too many rules because rules and conformity drain energy from an organization and they want to allow for great diversity in their organization.  As Richman says, they have only “a few rules that we’re dead serious about.”  The integrity comes from the culture of discipline around their core values.  Because the leadership takes those values seriously (this is way beyond the mission statement on a plaque on the wall that most businesses have) the employees take them seriously as well.

It is amazing to see how much the spa industry (or any industry for that matter) can learn from an online shoe retailer.  But as Tony Hsieh will tell us on Wednesday, Zappos is not about shoes, it’s about service.  And they do it really really well.

References and recommended reading:

Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.  New York: Hachette.

8 Responses to Lessons on Culture and Service from Zappos

  1. Judy Krings November 8, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Talk about uplifting. As a loyal Zappos fan, it is terrific to see you and Tony up close and personal. I am sure, Jeremy McCarthy, you and Tony set Vegas on his/her heels! Thanks for YOUR great service, too. Super blog!

  2. Stacy Conlon November 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    It’s incredible what happens inside an organization when the backbone of the culture is caring – both for the employees and the customers. Zappo’s high integrity coupled with realistic goals and a strategy to acheive them seems to be a crucial part of their success.

    Thanks for sharing this, Jeremy. Very inspiring!

  3. Karen Henry November 8, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    This is perfect timing and exactly the article I needed to share with my applied social psych. & applied positive psych. classes today. Trying to teach them about positive organizational scholarship through using companies who LIVE this type of culture…and bing! Here you are sharing your experience. Thanks! This is now required reading for my undergrads. 🙂


  4. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) November 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    Thanks Karen, there is more to come on this in this week’s article! Also, I will be hosting a free webinar on “Positive Leadership” this week if interested. Thanks for reading and sharing . . . I’m so honored!

  5. Judy Krings November 14, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    Are you going to send us the link to your webinar, Jeremy, Pretty please? Many thanks!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy November 14, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    Hi Judy, here is the link to register: http://unex.uci.edu/services/events/#00604


  7. Judy Krings November 15, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    Many thanks and I all dressed up with some place to go! Looking forward to it. Hugs,JK

  8. Joel May 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

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    I will bookmark your blog and check again here regularly.
    I’m quite sure I’ll learn lots of new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

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