Contact center work can be high stress, and it can be a slog.  But there are contact centers out there that stand out from the norm.  Zappos famously falls into this category with its Customer Loyalty Team that powers Zappos customer service through its famously warm and enthusiastic telephone (and email) support.

To get a phone's-eye view on this, I interviewed Megan Petrini, who has been on the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team (ZCLT) for 11 years.

Micah Solomon, Inc.: Where did you start your career at Zappos, and what is your current position? 

Megan Petrini, Zappos: I've been on the ZCLT (Zappos Customer Loyalty Team) since I first started here eleven years ago.  I'm currently a Senior New Hire Trainer.  

Solomon: What are your responsibilities in your current role?

Petrini: Introducing the culture, core values, basic systems, and service philosophy of Zappos to all new hires. I also hold new trainees accountable to expectations.

Solomon: From your perspective, what makes Zappos' contact center special?

Petrini: Empowerment. There are no call times and there are no scripts.  We once had a mom call in to get new swimsuits for her kids because they had all grown out of them, as kids do. The air conditioning in her house had also just broken, and it was faster for her to receive an order in one business day from Zappos than it was to haul her children around to different stores to try on new swimwear. We placed the order for her and also overnighted a slip'n'slide to her for the kiddos. That's a very big wow.

Solomon:  A very big wow. 

Petrini: Yes--and it's all because our team members have the freedom and authority to truly build relationships with our customers.  

Solomon:  Can you give me an example or two of when you or those on your team have built such relationships? 

Petrini: have two personal examples from when I was on the phones that always stand out to me.  The first was a Canadian customer who called in and wanted to place a new order, but he was speaking French.  I took 7 years of French (not consistently), but they don't teach you things like "shipping," "receipt," or "what size and color?" So, I start speaking horrible French, and the customer interrupts me to let me know he speaks English. Relieved, I went through the rest of the order and we chatted about French and other languages. Before we hung up, he told me to call him back so we could do it again in French for practice!  He took time out of his day to help out a French language student in a call center in Las Vegas.  That's when I realized how amazing our customers actually are.

My second example is when a retired lady called in who was having trouble getting into her account and just needed to place a new order.  I apologized for her troubles and placed the order for her.  Her shipping address was in Hawaii and at the time I had never been, so I got excited and started telling her how much I'd always wanted to go and where I should go, what I should check out, does she love it, what's the food like; just bombarding this poor woman. She calmly answered all of my questions and wished me luck in getting there someday.  Two weeks later a package arrived at the office with my name on it, and when I opened the box there was a handwritten note from my Hawaiian customer with six boxes of Hawaiian macadamia nuts.  She had sent me a card!  And all I did was place an order for her.

Solomon: Are the agents at the contact center integrated into Zappos' culture, or are they pretty much a group unto themselves?

Petrini: Everyone is integrated! Our culture comes down to one thing: relationships. Our new-hire classes are always mixed, with every department's new hires going through them together.

Solomon: Do employees from the contact center ever rise through the ranks to other responsibilities within or outside of the contact center?

Petrini: All of the time!  We hire based on culture, and since ZCLT is the biggest department, other teams poach from there a lot.  We know that they already understand the Zappos Experience; all that's left is to teach the skills specific to the department.  We have former ZCLT associates in almost every department.  We also have a great internship program which lets interns try out different departments.

Solomon: When you're training new recruits, what are some of the things you let them know about working in the Zappos contact center?

Petrini: Customer over company. Set up the next team member for success with information. Everyone deserves the Zappos Experience. We make all our business decisions using our core values.  I would also like to note that this is given to everyone who works here; not just those in the call center.

Solomon:  One more thing, and I hope you don't mind this question.   Since so many of my readers are in business themselves, do you mind sharing a mistake made by you or your team that you've learned from that could be of value to my readers?

Petrini: I once argued with a customer over a coupon. She was being very mean and I didn't want to give one to her. I eventually had to transfer her to someone else.  I definitely didn't set up the next team member for success on that one. My takeaway: don't get defensive.  Customers have real lives, and you're just one stop on their daily train.  Do your best to make their day better, not harder.  I should have listened to the customer more. When I first started on the phones I was so nervous about making a customer mad. I once had a customer tell me I would never be successful because I was too happy -- I had had a lot of coffee that day and was even more cheerful than normal.