Business Communication Facts

Above and Beyond Great Customer Service: A Profile of Zappos

What is great customer service and how is it done? That’s a question we seek to answer every month or so as we highlight a company that takes its customer service and turns it up to eleven.

Zappos is known far and wide for its unbeatable customer service practices.

Have you heard about the time one of their representatives was on the phone with a customer for just under ten and a half hours, not addressing a product issue or simply taking an order, but chatting about living in Las Vegas? Zappos explained by saying, “Sometimes people just need to call and talk. We don’t judge, we just want to help.”

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: A customer had communicated that she needed to return some shoes. Her mother suddenly passed away and, in her grief, forgot to send the shoes back. When Zappos requested a status update, the customer explained what had happened. They arranged a courier to pick up the shoes and took care of the shipping at no extra cost. But there’s more: in addition, Zappos sent the customer a big flower arrangement. Wow!

Need another story? Cool. We have one. Another customer contacted Zappos because a strap on a pair of sandals she had purchased for her son had broken. She wrote Zappos and they told her she could keep the defective pair and overnighted her a replacement pair. That was great, only Zappos sent the wrong size. They refused an offer for a return, told her to donate the shoes to charity and overnighted the correct pair of shoes – at no extra cost.

We know you’ve heard the old saying about going above and beyond, but Zappos doesn’t see this as a hackneyed cliche; they see it as a standard to live up to and attempt to provide that exact experience to their customers daily.

It All Started with a Plan for Greatness

I spoke with Kelly Wolske, a member of the Zappos Insights Team, about how the company got its start. The founder, Nick Swinmurn, had a dream of creating a company with the biggest inventory of shoes. Wolske explained that, due to a smaller inventory at the beginning, their customer service strategy was built out of necessity. Ultimately, they took one of their greatest weaknesses and turned it into success.

“When we were founded in 1999, we were not able to get a lot of brands who would sell to us,” Wolske said. “It became more about creating a great customer experience, and part of that is having a robust selection. But there’s more to it than that. We wanted to be able to create that experience even if we didn’t have the products.”

Their Core Values Inspire Great Service

Wolske explained it’s the core values that really help to create the customer experience that has endeared Zappos to so many.

“All of our core values are what define our culture and it’s our culture that really allows us that ability to create those great customer experiences, however core value number one – Deliver WOW through service – that’s the one that speaks most directly to creating a great experience for your customer.”

\But how do they find the right people for the job? From where do these empathetic angels come? Business owners, take note: Wolske said they try to find people, through behavioral interviewing, whose value system aligns to the company’s core values.

“One of our interview questions is, ‘Tell me about a great customer service experience you’ve had.’ It’s our belief and our experience that if you can’t identify good customer service, then you certainly can’t deliver it. Because we believe everyone is a customer and the customer is our number one job, we want to make sure that everyone has an understanding of it.

The Price of Going Above and Beyond?

Delivering flowers, sending free pairs of shoes, upgrading shipping for free, buying an out of stock item from a competitor’s store for a customer: these are all examples of how Zappos delivers that above and beyond service for which they are so well known.

A business owner may look at this impressive list and think, “There is no way I can justify the cost of doing customer service like that.” Wolske politely disagrees.

“For us, it’s not as much about justifying that cost, as we can’t justify not doing it.” Wolske said. Zappos simply cannot put a price on word of mouth marketing – and small business owners who are serious about delivering a great customer experience should see it the same way.

“Word of mouth is so important and it’s even more important for small business. It’s not like I’m just telling my friends about a bad experience. No, no, no! I’m telling Twitter. I’m telling Facebook. Everyone has a bully pulpit now,” Wolske said.

Not convincing enough for you? Check out these statistics that Wolske shared with me:

  • 75% of Zappos’ sales come from return customers.
  • Of the 25% of all new customers, 40% indicate that they heard of Zappos through a friend or family member.

“Word of mouth marketing is incredibly important to us. To us, that’s more important than any kind of marketing we do,” Wolske said. “We really consider that customer experience to be a key marketing tool.”

Small Businesses Can Achieve Great Things

Zappos has a lot to teach business owners about how to treat a customer right and how to build a culture that supports its customers. Here are some actionable tips Wolske shared for the small business owner.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Wolske says it’s key to consider how you would like to be treated and then build from there.“It’s really about creating an experience you would want to have and creating an experience you would want to share – story-worthy experiences.”

Place trust in the people you work with and serve.

“We put a lot of trust in our customers, and our employees and our vendors. We have found that they return that trust with trustworthy behavior,” Wolske said. She also explained that customer service suffers when you don’t trust your employees to manage customer problems. “When I’m experiencing bad customer service, what I’ve discovered is many times it’s not giving your employees the authority to solve the problems your customers give them.” 

Your culture helps you create a great customer experience.

“Tony often says Zappos isn’t employee first or customer first, but rather culture first,” Wolske said. “We believe that actually taking care of our culture is the vehicle that affords us the ability to create those great experiences.” 

Ready to get started on developing a culture that drives great service? Wolske said it’s all about figuring out what your culture is and nourishing it. “Every organization already has a culture; define what’s already there and call out the behaviors you want to grow and encourage, and that’s how you will cultivate that culture. Cultivate the ones that are going to be your strengths,” Wolske said. It is Zappos’ 10 core values that define and drive their culture. Wolske says the values help them strive for greatness daily.

“Our core values are who we are on our best day. We’re going to miss the mark some days because we are an organization of 1500 very flawed humans,” Wolske said. “But the raw material for those core values is there.”

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