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Zappos Cultural Evangelist Jon Wolske on delivering world class customer service

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In his role as Culture Evangelist for Zappos Insights, Jon Wolske tours the world and hosts TED Talks spreading the message behind the company’s customer experience success.

Online retailer Zappos is renowned for more than just its deals on quality clothing and shoes. In setting a now exalted standard for customer service, the company quickly established itself as a market leader, leading to an eventual $1.2 bn acquisition by Amazon in 2009. Now operating from its Las Vegas headquarters, Zappos employs over 1,500 staff and produces in excess of $2 billion in revenue annually.

My personal Zappos journey started in 2008. At that time I didn’t really think about customer service as something that I was passionate about. I knew I enjoyed working with people, but I also knew I didn’t want to work in a call center. I’d done that before, and my personal experience of it was less than inspiring.

It wasn’t until I arrived at Zappos that I realized just how much I liked providing good experiences, and how approaching it from a more thoughtful angle made all the difference. The key driver in me figuring that out was internalizing the company culture that runs right through every interaction we have with customers; from research, to support calls, and live chats.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve been with the Zappos Insights team for almost seven years, where our objective is sharing our company approach to organizational culture and customer service with businesses from around the world. Our company culture was in place well before I started, famously championed by our CEO Tony Hsieh and defined by our employees back in 2006 as our Ten Core Values.

Number one on that list is to ‘Deliver WOW Through Service’. It’s at the top for a reason, because it fundamentally underpins everything we do as a company; ask customers what you can do for them, listen, and then figure out how to exceed those expectations.

Breaking this core concept down beyond the slogan, how does WOW manifest in the real world, and what does delivering WOW today look like? Perhaps more pressingly, how do you figure out what WOW means to different customers?

At the heart of it, WOW is going above and beyond what people expect. It’s not about giving away the farm to chase sales, and it’s certainly not any specific dollar amount. It’s delivering above the norm in a way that will delight, and adopting a multi-faceted approach to get there.

Predicting Customer Behaviour Before They Arrive

Whether you’re selling a physical product or software and apps, looking closely at how your customers actually interact with your company is the first touchpoint in delivering an exceptional customer experience.

As an internet-first company, Zappos has become one of the more recognizable retail brands on the web, and with that reputation comes a degree of expectation, and ultimately responsibility. Our customers expect a fluid, intuitive experience when they come to Zappos.com. It’s why we spend considerable time and resources on looking at how they use the home site, analyzing what we can learn from those interactions, and making them as seamless as possible from a user perspective.

It’s why we spend considerable time and resources on looking at how they use the home site, analyzing what we can learn from those interactions, and making them as seamless as possible from a user perspective.

Today, given the widely documented shifting habits of millennial customers, that often translates into how well the service operates on mobile. Both our suite of apps and mobile web platform have been shaped by looking at the user data and asking ourselves questions like, “How do we make it more mobile friendly? How do we make our apps better utilize specific format tools instead of relying on those just built into the website?”

A combination of insights and direct feedback prompted us to incorporate the various filters that make product selection easier from the mobile homepage, extended our 24/7 customer support directly within our apps via live chat, and provided links to our support email and phone numbers.

Through extensive usage of our mobile offering, we have a good handle on what our existing and prospective customers are looking for from our service. We’re at the point where we can start to consider and prioritize feedback on features that customers are specifically telling us, ‘I wish that I could…’ And believe me, Zappos customers are not at all ashamed to let us know how we can improve our product.

Direct Contact: Learning From Customer One-To-Ones

Unfortunately, the accepted trend these days is to not expect great service from companies when you call them. Over time we’ve become conditioned to the idea that when you call customer support – particularly with a complaint – you should get ready for a fight of some sort.

Either in getting the service you want, or sometimes just getting to speak to a human being. In this sense, it’s actually incredibly easy to make sure you’re a company that WOWs your customers, simply by being yourself and listening to what the person is saying, instead of listening for one or two words that you can find scripted on your call sheet.

An example – a customer, ‘Joe’, calls in having bought some smart shoes in a nine and a half, but thinks they’re going to be a little bit tight because he has to wear them all day long at his cousin’s wedding. His request is to swap them for a size ten.

A swap for a larger shoe; we do this transaction all day long, but our reps are trained to ask, ‘what is it that’s really important to Joe here?’ It’s not the size, it’s not even the delivery time, it’s the wedding he’s attending. That’s the reason he’s taking time out of his day to look for shoes, and the whole reason he’s even speaking to us. By learning this snippet of information we gain a little insight into the real motivation behind our new customer, and an opportunity to connect with him.

Our customer service personnel are given the autonomy to not only upgrade shipping or prioritize orders but to go the extra mile wherever they deem it necessary to deliver a WOW level of service. A rep of ours once took a call from a loyal customer, who explained that she had forgotten to mail back a pair of shoes she’d planned to return because of a death in the family. The rep sent her flowers of condolence, and she’s now a customer for life.

Putting Customer Experience In The Job Description

Some people are surprised when I inform them that we don’t consider ourselves to be an online retail business. We are first and foremost a service company. Our approach dictates that ultimately it doesn’t matter what business we’re in, as long as we deliver on those great experiences, it’s probably going to be successful for us.

For a service company, that means those experiences when customers do reach out to us in any way, really need to be our core competency. It’s why we don’t farm out any of our customer experience management, from insights to our dedicated call center team.

I’m often asked what’s changed in the time since I joined, and the answer in all honesty from a CX/experience perspective is ‘not that much’. To be clear, we’re a lot bigger, we’re in a different office, and of course we have a different owner.

We work from our new campus in Las Vegas today, have changed systems and tools we use and our board of directors has some new faces – particularly those from Amazon who I affectionately call our ‘sugar daddy’. If anybody were to have written down all the physical developments at Zappos in the last decade or so, it would probably look like an insane amount of change.

But from my perspective, I do believe that I still work for the same company I applied for back at the end of 2007. One of our core values is to ‘embrace and drive change’, and the fact that we’ve maintained our level of outstanding customer experience is a testament to the strength of our service focus, as described in the behaviors you find in our Values/company culture.