The 10 Days of Zappos


Whilst in town today, I ran into… bacon.  I hadn’t the nerve to tell the bloke that I’m a vegan.


Some of my friends at work enjoying Halloween

Growing up in New York, I associated autumn with September, because that’s when the school year started, and with October, because that’s when we drove up to the cider press in New Paltz to look at the pumpkins and lug home bushels of apples for pies and applesauce.

In California, however, you have to reach November before it feels as if summer is really over.  Here and there, a few trees blush into fall color, as if embarrassed by being in such a minority.  There are plenty of pumpkin patches and corn mazes around, but somehow it all seems fake.  Once you’ve experienced autumn in New England or New York, autumn anywhere else seems pale by comparison.

Fortunately, November is the start of the holiday season, and this I can count on to bring me inexpressible joy.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are nearly upon us, lights and decorations are everywhere and I turn on the holiday music to make my spirits soar.  I’ve already been singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the shower for a month.  (The verse about “bring us some figgy pudding” never ceases to crack me up — I’m weird like that.)  Some gripe about the holiday season starting too soon, but I am one of those saps who wishes “peace on earth, good will toward men” would prevail every day of the year.

As we embark upon the holidays, my thoughts turn to all the retail and call center staff working holiday jobs for a little extra cash.  These are the women and men who are the heart of our holiday shopping expeditions, the very ones who make it possible for us to have all those brightly wrapped gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.  I know this kind of work can be brutal, and that harried shoppers who are running out of patience, time and money seldom take a moment to say “thank you.”  So here it is from Uncle Guacamole:  Thank you to all the stockers and cashiers and floor managers and warehouse workers on fork lifts and call center reps on the phones.  Love to every one of you.

And a particular shout out to the customer loyalty team at Zappos, burning up the phone lines in the old city hall in downtown Las Vegas.  These folks are dear to my heart because they know how to both feel and inspire joy all year long.  I am nearly 600 miles away in northern California, but I am with you in spirit.

Last June, I posted a love song for Zappos, in which I admitted that working for the company is my secret desire.  As with unrequited love everywhere, this starry-eyed swooner has learned to be an admirer from afar.

Among the reasons that Zappos continues to command my respect is the Zappos Family Core Values.  Accordingly, as we get started with NaBloPoMo, I will spend the next ten days celebrating these values, one at a time, in this space.  If this bores you into a coma, please return on Veterans Day, when the usual schedule of lunacy that is A Map of California will resume in all its twisted glory.

Zappos Core Value #1:  Deliver WOW Through Service

The word “wow” implies surprise, which in turn refers to the unusual — in this case, unexpected delight.  One may be tempted to say that getting to “wow” should not be too difficult in the realm of customer service, since most of our expectations are set so low.  Of course, you know what the problem is with low expectations:  They are a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It goes something like this . . .

Customer:  Retail employees are either rude or they just don’t care, so I’m going to be realistic and won’t expect much.  Just get me through this transaction and out the door as quickly as possible.

Retail Employee:  Customers are either rude or they’re just clueless, so I’m just going to do the zombie thing and get through my day on auto-pilot.  They don’t pay me enough for this!

See what I mean?  This is depressing.  Fortunately, when you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.  Even as small a gesture as a smile tends to surprise customers these days.

Now, to take it a step further (e-commerce edition):

Customer:  It’s the holiday season, so they always jack up the prices and I’m going to have to pay a lot more than I really should.  With holiday backups, who knows whether my order will arrive in time for Christmas.  When it gets here, the box will probably be smashed or torn open and my merchandise will either be damaged or will be the wrong item, color or size.

Call Center Employee:  Lady, I’m just doing my job.  I have no control over that stuff.  Gimme a break, will ya?

Sadly, I can’t blame the customer for having expectations that all too often ring true.  There is no excuse for the call center employee, however.  This is a classic case of not taking ownership of the situation, otherwise known as “passing the buck.”  It’s a terminal case of I-don’t-care.

My question to you is:  Why should a customer plunking down her hard-earned money patronize businesses offering this type of customer service?  Some may think that it’s just a fact of life, that there isn’t any alternative.  Happily, Zappos and likeminded companies have proven that there is another way.

To me, the “wow” factor starts with keeping your promises.  Everything advertised should be immediately available, and in the desired style, color and size.  It continues with a positive attitude:  Customer service representatives should have a smile in their voices, deep product knowledge, a willingness to go out of the way to be helpful, a positive attitude and unwavering courtesy.  Find a way to say “yes.”  Respect the customer and the customer may surprise you by respecting you.  Next, the business must come through by delivering the correct item at the correct price on time, or early if possible.  Little treats like a discount coupon for next time are helpful to further encourage repeat business.  Finally, when things go wrong, as they inevitably will at times, sincere apologies must be backed up with immediately making the situation right, whatever that may entail.  The company must take a personal interest in the customer’s satisfaction, whether that involves re-sending the item ordered and refunding the customer’s money, delivering the item in person or, as shown in the recent movie The Intern, providing the customer with the company owner’s personal cell phone number.  If you can make the customer say “Wow!,” not only will you have a customer for life, but your customer will tell everyone he or she knows about the wonderful service experienced.

I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to be a part of a work environment that treats the “wow” factor as status quo.  It has to be empowering to work in a place where, instead of being an exception, providing amazing service is all in a day’s work.  There is nothing unusual about it.

It is well known that happiness is contagious.  Why settle for grumpy employees and customers when it is just as easy to have cheerful employees and delighted customers?  When you enjoy what you’re doing and you have a desire to please, the love shines through and brightens the day of the customers you serve.  And coming to work becomes nothing short of pure joy.

Customer “service” is not just a convenient term for salespeople.  It really does mean that we are servants, whose goal must be to please the customer, not to blindly follow scripts or policy or just get through the day.  The most successful businesses, those who inspire true loyalty, are those who understand that we are here to do the will of the customer, not the other way around.

Of course, taking care of the employees is an important part of the formula.  You have to “wow” them, too, which means lots of fun and frivolity!  At Zappos, this includes things like free food, the ability to bring your dog to work, and a steady parade of ruckus and circus that makes coming to work fun. I guess I’m not alone.  Everyone probably wants to work there.

To reiterate, Uncle Guacamole’s four steps to delivering “wow” through service are:

  • Keep your promises
  • Maintain a positive attitude at all times
  • Find a way to say “yes”
  • Move heaven and earth to make it right, no gesture too grand

Happy holidays!

Tomorrow: Zappos Core Value # 2 – Embrace and Drive Change

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logo   nanopoblano2015dark

The Peppermint Purse

peppermint purse

We were out to dinner at a popular family restaurant chain a few nights ago when we happened to sit near the front door, in view of the “claw game” that kids play to try to win a plush toy or other trinket.

Playing this type of game, which is rather ubiquitous throughout the United States, involves inserting coins and then using a joystick apparatus to first move the claw over the desired prize and then lower the claw to grab onto it.  At that point, the claw picks up the prize, raises it over the delivery slot and drops it to be received by the player.  The claw then resets by moving along its track to return to its initial position.

The only problem with this game is that it takes both luck and skill to get that claw to grab the prize firmly enough to successfully carry it to the delivery slot.  More often than not, the claw brushes over the prize, grabbing only air and delivering exactly nothing to the player.

Those who have played this game on the midways of carnivals and county fairs know that the apparatus is often set to virtually guarantee that the player does not win the prize.  Both on the midway and in truck stops and restaurants, I have seen players who have not been kids for some time plow a roll of quarters into these games in an effort to “win” the one prize on which their hearts are set.  More often than not, they come up empty handed after paying for the prize that they did not receive several times over.

These mechanical amusements are legal in public places because they are considered “games of skill” rather than gambling.  I would suggest that one could dispute this assertion.

There were quite a few families with children eating in the restaurant the night we were there, and of course many of the kids wanted to try to win a toy.  While we were enjoying dinner, we were treated to quite a show.  It seemed that every family approaching the game won a prize.  If they tried two or three times, they won two or three prizes.

We were smiling as giggling kids and happy families trooped past our table on the way out to their cars, children proudly bearing their stuffed toys.  As it was just a few days before Christmas, we could not help but wonder whether the vendor had reset the apparatus to aim perfectly straight and true.  Surely all these families didn’t happen to possess just the right eye-hand coordination needed to perform the difficult feat of hooking a toy.

As if that weren’t enough, we were flabbergasted when one couple not only successfully grabbed the desired toy for their child, but also managed to cause the claw to knock over a second toy so that both of them were dumped into the delivery slot.

The lucky family started to leave with their booty when my wife began admiring one of their prizes, a plush purse colored and shaped like a peppermint candy that she thought would be perfect for our little grandniece.  She accosted them as they walked by our table, asking if she could buy the prize for three dollars.  They generously said we could have it for one dollar, as that’s all it cost them to win it.  My wife was delighted with their generosity.

As fate would have it, the restaurant manager observed this little transaction.  After the winning family left the premises, he walked over to our table and gave my wife back her dollar.

After all my years as a manager, I consider this tiny gesture to be one of the finest examples of customer service I have witnessed.  I have no doubt that the manager played some part in ensuring that the claw game delivered to the holiday shoppers coming through.  But to take the extra step to refund the dollar paid by my wife goes above and beyond.  And it only cost him a dollar.

I am willing to bet that the manager took that dollar out of his own pocket, not from company funds.  As a result, he has earned a repeat customer for his (frankly) relatively low-quality establishment.

I fully plan to use The Peppermint Purse as an example the next time I have an opportunity to train employees on principles of customer service.  I never cease to be amazed about how the smallest things can have the greatest impact.

Then, on Christmas Eve, it happened again.  My wife had ordered two pair of shoes online and they arrived in the mail.  To our surprise, when we opened the package, we found that both pair were defective.  One of those “pairs” consisted of a right shoe of one size and a left shoe of another!

My wife went online to complain.  The company has a policy that the purchaser must pay the postage for returning any goods.  Well, I’m sure you can understand our position that we shouldn’t have to pay the return postage when the goods were defective.

On the company’s website, my wife was able to live chat with a customer service representative.  When she explained the situation, the rep offered to have two new pair of shoes sent out immediately.  As for the defective shoes, not only were we not asked to pay the return postage, we don’t have to return them at all.  The rep suggested that we donate them.

So, let’s summarize what the company accomplished here:

  • In light of its own error, the company relaxed its return postage policy so that the wronged customer would not incur any expense.
  • Immediately offered to make the situation right by replacing the defective merchandise.
  • Furthered its positive image by suggesting that the defective merchandise be donated to people in need.

The end result:  A satisfied customer is a repeat customer.  And I now have yet another example, which I shall call Left Shoe, Right Shoe, to share with my future employees.

I believe that those who say that customer service is horrible in this country have got it all wrong.  Sure, there will always be employees who don’t care and who are merely going through the motions.  I blame this on employment mismatches (faulty recruiting practices and ineffective or nonexistent employee development programs), insufficient “soft skills” training and squeamish management who use every excuse to avoid the disciplinary process.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Managers tend to latch on to the horror stories, much like the claw reaching for the plush toys, expending all their energies on finding ways to correct errors after they occur.  This is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.  Better results, with fewer customers lost to agent errors, could be obtained by following the examples of those who are doing it right.

Mr. Peppermint Purse and Ms. Left Shoe, Right Shoe have valuable lessons to teach us.