What makes for a success story in online business that other companies can learn from? In the case of Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh might argue that his brand’s identity is intrinsically linked to exemplary customer service fostered by the company’s culture. No surprise perhaps that Zappos makes the short-list of company’s voted “Best Place to Work” a couple of years running.
As the largest online seller of shoes, Zappos has taken the age-old “customer comes first” idea and coupled it with a quick-response ethos that conveys a pull-out-all-the-stops approach to solving problems. To secure a team that is willing to do this, the company offers incentives (free lunch, a library, flexibility with office decor) and places them in the context of a set of ten core values that include “Be Humble” and “Create Fun and Little Weirdness”. Within Zappos, the core values are a point of departure and return, espousing family spirit, passion, change, learning, being open-minded, and doing more with less. The first core value, “Deliver WOW Through Service” doubles as a pay-off where the customer is surprised by the way they are treated and more likely to return as a result.
To foster a strong team ethos, and address potential imbalance between management and employee experience, Zappos asks managers to spend a nominal period of work time “goofing off” with employees during off hours. The idea is not new but fits within the company’s implicit message: fostering an equitable, familial sensibility in a demanding workplace will reflect throughout the organization and enhance everyone’s performance.
The mechanics of what Zappos does in not unlike what many companies try to do: Develop proper incentives for all members of the organization. In some cases, ‘proper’ means that workers are given a strong financial incentive but nothing more. In other words, the company’s culture is based around specific performance goals that everyone has to meet. And, in some cases, this works because everyone knows what is expected. Where some companies suffer is that, in the absence of a set of values that are explicitly stated, moving through crisis becomes much more difficult.
The risk of having core values being trotted out and held up as the model for the company’s success is that even the most heartfelt, intelligent articulation of one’s values can become stale — especially when they are codified. Even so, Zappos has moved through being bought by Amazon in 2009 without seeming to give up its central ethos. Case in point in their moving to downtown Las Vegas from headquarters in Henderson, Nevada. In an October 12, 2012 New York Times piece, “What Happens in Brooklyn Moves to Vegas”, Hsieh says: “Every factory in the world is doing everything to maximize R.O.I. (return on investment). We’re doing everything to maximize R.O.C.” By R.O.C., Hsieh means “return on community”.
Companies that are successful at implementing innovative ideas need to have fundamentals in place, and to know their own company’s culture. In the case of Zappos, that which sustains the organization apparently goes to heart of its actions.