Zappos: A Customer Experience Company that Happens to Sell Shoes

By: Matthew @BlogCX Thomas

An Interview with Jonathan Wolske, Culture Evangelist at Zappos Insights

If you know nothing about Zappos customer culture, you should start googling now. Zappos, the world’s largest online shoe store, has an incredibly unique company culture and a customer service policy, which is so bold, it’s turned their Nevada offices into a tourist attraction!

Zappos is an inspiring example of the importance of customer service and of how pushing the limits can pay off huge.

We were recently lucky enough to be able to talk in depth with Jonathan Wolske, Culture Evangelist at Zappos Insights- his job title says it all- it’s definitely a great read!

Check out the interview below, and let us know what you think in the comments section as well.

CXperience: Zappos’ #1 core value is “Deliver WOW Through Service”. Why is the customer’s experience so important (valued even above the pursuit of growth and learning!)?

Jonathan Wolske: I think a lot of businesses look solely at the business bottom line. What we’ve decided to do is be focused on experiences.

We are first and foremost a service company. We happen to have a website and we happen to sell shoes but, beyond that, we’re about service. If we provide great experiences now, our brand will be very strong in the future. 

If we changed it and focused only on the margins and costs, it would change our focus with customers; we would be doing more things for us, than for them, and ultimately, that would hurt the Customer Experience, our business’s growth, and our reputation.

So, the reason Customer Experience is at the top of the list is because Zappos isn’t a shoe company; we’re a service company. If we can get everything rallied around a great experience, then ultimately well have less to worry about. If we continue to operate with Customer Experience at the forefront, we’ll continue to grow for many years.

CXperience: We’ve all read about Zappos incredible customer service stories- (like the time Zappos paid the tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike or mailed the Best Man a free pair of shoes to the wedding because he forgot his).

Do you have any personal favorite stories that you want to share about customer experience, on a real human level?

JW: I started out on the Zappos Customer Service floor. I was talking to a customer- a pretty standard transaction – the woman needed a different size of shoes. She sounded pretty upset. As a gentleman, you know that asking ‘What’s wrong- Is everything alright?’ can be a difficult question to answer, but I asked anyway. She let me know that her daughter had been in a car accident 3 months prior. For 3 months, she and her husband had been living life – going to work and going to the hospital- because her daughter was in a coma.

I just really felt like, “Man, I want to do something”. Zappos provides creative options for just such situations. So through Zappos, we sent flowers to this family with a note telling them- ‘There’s not much more I can do for you on the phone, but I just want to let you know that I am thinking about you and your family and what you’re going through.’

2 weeks later Zappos received an email from this family. From all the people they had received flowers from, it was the biggest arrangement. Everyone who saw the card thought- ‘Zappos? Isn’t that a shoe store?’ It was a very moving experience.

Our ‘Wow’ is how I can help you, specifically. If all I can do is ask you wants going on and tell you I feel for you, then Zappos provides the opportunity to do more- We can send some flowers.

We focus on creating a Wow experience. We’re not trying to drive sales- we know that the sales come as a result of our unique customer experience. We’re trying to meet people where they need to be met and the brand will be stronger because of that.

CXperience: I’ve read most of Zappos customers are long term customers.

JW: On the average day it’s around 70-75% of Zappos customers are return customers!

CXperience: Zappos’ employee reviews are heavily based upon how well they live up to Zappos’ core values. In what other ways do you encourage each employee to value and embrace customer service as a work priority?

JW: Throughout the organization, not just in the Call Centre, the service-focus is stressed.

Anytime a new employee joins the Zappos family, they have 3 weeks of customer training. So if you’re a Director the Tech side, you’re going to hear all about the Zappos customer service culture and were going to show you how we see it and celebrate it. Every person will learn to take phone calls in the contact center.

This extra training shows everyone how their role plays a part in the customer experience. It’s not just about doing what you do and doing it well- We hired you because you aligned with our values. It’s about getting every person plugged into- “Here’s what I do and I can touch, feel, see how it’s connected to the customer experience that we are so focused on.”

At the other end of the list of our values is ‘Be Humble’. We don’t care if you’re the most awesome programmer. If you don’t see the value of going through that Customer Experience training program, then Zappos isn’t the place for you. It’s not just customer service in the Call Center- We all live that value.

CXperience: I heard that the office in Las Vegas is a tourist attraction. What’s that all about?

JW: I had the pleasure of being the first full time tour guide. In a 2 year period, we went from a handful of guests coming in each day for a tour to averaging at well over 1300 guests a month now.  We have made our office and our culture a business tourist attraction. It’s a nice reminder that people want to see what we’re doing.

CXperience: Zappos provides free shipping- both ways! What led Zappos to break the common mold of online shopping?

JW: In 1999, when we got started, one of the reasons people thought this store would never work was because if I could just drive to the store and just try on shoes, why would I ever buy something online, pay shipping and then wait for it to come? One of the first things we did early on was just say, “Okay, shipping is free”.

If we can provide shipping to the customers at no cost, they are more likely to buy items and try them on to find the right fit and style. Soon after, we made returns free. It actually started very early on because it was one of the hurdles to selling the product online.

To this day, very long term, loyal customers will call in and mention “Oh man, I just love Zappos because the shipping is free!” As weird as it sounds, it’s a huge boost to the decision making process.

What it actually generates is, not only customers that use and love Zappos, but they come back and are very loyal customers. We know that when customers shop at Zappos, they buy a few pairs on each order and then return most or all of the order. We actually know that those customers have a higher lifetime value. While free shipping and free returns is ultimately a cost upfront, it’s generating long term loyalty, which is ultimately positive movement on the bottom line.

CXperience: Leap Day 2012, Zappos ran an online campaign offering a Leap Day return policy extension. Please tell us what you learned from this campaign and how the Zappos has evolved its online customer experience since. 

JW: The leap day policy falls under a unique category.  Obviously ‘Create Wow Through Service’-one of our core values- but also ‘Create fun and a little weirdness’, which is another core value that we have.

We realized that often customers shafted on Leap Years because the month is so short. We decided that it would be a fun to say- hey, if you’re buying these shoes on the Leap Day, you get a 4 year policy rather than a 365 day policy. It’s kind of central to who we are- just being a little bit different and fun.

We know that every day when the customer service team asks, “How can I help you today?” they are looking for what they can do to keep the customer experience moving forward. 

 Enjoyed this Article? SHARE with Your Friends & Coworkers! 


Matthew is the Lead Author & Editor of CXperience Blog. Matthew established the CXperience blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Customer Experience.