Nobody thought the idea of selling shoes on the Internet was a good one when Zappos.com was founded in 1999. So CEO Tony Hsieh offered free shipping and returns because it seemed like the only way to get customers to buy shoes online without having the ability to first try them on. The company also displayed its customer-support number prominently and offered customers a personal buying service and even free socks.
In 2003, Hsieh moved the company from San Francisco to Las Vegas, to tap into the city’s large pool of experienced call-center workers who are accustomed to working overnight shifts. (There are also lower taxes in Nevada.) As Zappos built its 24-hour call-center operation, it eschewed the restrictive policies common in many such operations. Zappos reps are not asked to stick to scripts, are encouraged to make decisions without consulting managers, and are encouraged to send personal notes and flowers to customers.
How do you make sure that a company’s culture doesn’t fall apart as it expands from 15 employees to 1,500? Hsieh sticks to a rigorous training regimen. Every new employee in the company’s Henderson, Nevada headquarters must spend two weeks answering customer calls, two weeks learning in a classroom, and a week shipping boxes in the company’s Kentucky fulfillment center. Then there’s an additional curriculum for longtime employees, which includes 200 hours worth of classes in subjects such as Sarbanes-Oxley compliance and Twitter etiquette.
About that Twitter use: Since sending tweets is part of the job, every employee at Zappos can serve as a de-facto PR person, helping to promote the brand and answer questions. Zappos promotes openness in the physical world too. The company hosts tours of its headquarters everyday--an operation that is staffed by 12 people and includes two SUVs and a bus, all adorned with the Zappos logo. Call the company from your hotel on the Vegas strip, and someone will pick you up, give you a tour, and have you back in time to hit the tables at the Bellagio.
The next step for Zappos? Happiness. Hsieh has decided to focus on the concept as a way to boost productivity and to grow sales, which hit $1 billion last year. He’s been giving employees books on how to be happier and has been tweaking the way his company promotes employees to give them a greater sense of control. For customers, he has focused on the art of surprise. Zappos advertises free ground shipping, but most orders are mailed overnight. The idea is to give customers an unexpected sense of joy--and, of course, to get them to buy another pair of shoes. --Max Chafkin