Last week I shared a customer experience story of a gentleman (fictionally named Ben Jones) who, just hours before he would head to the airport to fly cross-country for a business meeting, received a shipment of dress shoes in the wrong size from an online retailer. The story does have a happy ending; check it out if you haven’t already — this article will have more meaning in context.
(Spoiler alert: the online retailer was Zappos.)
I heard the story of Ben Jones and customer service representative Shawn at a Zappos Insights Training Events session a few years ago. As part of that same training, I had the opportunity to participate in a small-group Q&A with the then-head of Zappos’ Corporate Culture program. (I will refer to him as “Frank”, because, frankly, I don’t remember his name.)
Like so many others, I was impressed to the point of incredulous that Zappos’ customer service representatives had the kind of authority that was exercised by Shawn on behalf of Ben Jones.
I had so many questions for Frank, most of which were, in one way or another, variations of this:
Do you have established limits or other guidelines for what representatives can and cannot do, and aren’t you afraid that some representative will give away the store?
It turns out I wasn’t alone in having these questions, and Frank explained to those of us in attendance that the Zappos “empowerment model” was carefully planned out and executed. Here are the main bullet-point takeaways:
- Training: Zappos Customer service representatives are trained in assessing “good value matches”. That is, representatives learn to take into consideration the nature and scope of the customer’s problem, along with the customer’s history, in assessing what would be an appropriate and fair solution.
- Coaching: If and when supervisors determine that a representative may have over-delivered or under-delivered in addressing a customer problem, that representative would receive coaching. The goal here is to help representatives discover on their own how they went too far (or not far enough), rather than to be told.
- Empowerment: A primary guiding principle at Zappos has been that customers want and deserve to deal with employees who are empowered to make management-level decisions — regardless of those employees’ actual positions or job titles. This empowerment ethic manifests itself not only in how training and coaching are designed and delivered but in such things as Zappos’ “unlimited call times” policy (i.e., customer service calls take as long as they need to take).
This all made sense to me, and I found it inspiring. But something inside me (perhaps I’m naturally skeptical or frugal or both) prompted me to raise my hand and ask, “So they don’t have to ask you about dollar amounts or anything?”
“No,” said Frank.
I threw my hands in the air and said, “Somebody could give away a car, for crying out loud!”
To which Frank smiled and replied, “Well, yes, but just one.”
If you couldn’t already tell, I believe that an organization’s culture is the single most powerful factor in determining its success and longevity. It might also be one of the hardest things to define and change.
If you have stories or questions about corporate culture, I’d love to hear from you. Either post them in the comments section below or contact me in some other way.
Thanks for listening.