How to Build a Corporate Culture that Keeps Customers and Employees Smiling

Zappos Shoe Boxes

Zappos shoe boxes. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Say you’re visiting Las Vegas…what’s top of your list of Fun Things To Do?

Mine was: Tour the corporate headquarters of a successful company and learn how it translates its values into exceptional customer service and employee culture.

Okay, so my priorities may be a bit different than yours, but when the company is Internet shoe and fashion sensation Zappos, I leapt at the chance. A couple years ago, I read Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It was interesting to understand his perspective about why a culture, created by employees, works better and has such a strong effect on the bottom line compared to cultures imposed from the top-down.

Zappos Values

Photo by Vickie Bates.

This is a photo-heavy post of our tour, led by the awesome Valerie of the Zappos Insights team, whose motto is “Engage Employees. Wow Customers.”

As you can imagine, I was on board from the get-go, especially when I saw this sign (click on any photo to enlarge), taped to an employee’s cubicle. How great that employees feel so strongly about Zappos Values that they display them.

FYI – here are Zappos’ 10 “Family Core Values”:

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open, Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More with Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

You’ll see most of these Values crop up throughout this post.

The tour focused on customer service and marketing with plenty of culture thrown in for good measure. It’s impossible to separate culture from almost anything Zapponian, as we quickly found out.

The walls, the stairwells, the cubicle jungles (everyone – and I mean everyone – works in a cubicle, as you’ll see) are all painted and decorated by employees. There’s no dress code. There are no rules about personal items on your desk.

Food and drinks are free – and given gratis to thirsty tour-group members – with the exception of certain vending machines, like the Red Bull dispenser, though the money collected through these goes to Operation Smile, a nonprofit that helps children born with cleft lips and cleft palates.

Zappos Hall of Fame

That’s our guide, Valerie, in the Zappos Hall of Fame. Photo by Vickie Bates.

At right, you can see our intrepid guide, the vivacious Valerie, at the start of our tour, in a sort of “hall of fame,” with framed T-shirts that were given to employees when Zappos hit certain milestones. For example, in his book, Hsieh mentions that Zappos had a goal of reaching $1 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2010. They zoomed past the mark in 2008. Hsieh comments:

“Looking back, a big reason we hit our goal early was that we decided to invest our time, money, and resources into three key areas: customer service (which would build our brand and drive word of mouth), culture (which would lead to the formation of our core values), and employee training and development (which would eventually lead to the creation of our Pipeline Team).”

About that customer service…

While there’s a goal of trying to respond to calls within 20 seconds (no one likes to hear endless ringing), there are no requirements about how long customer service reps can talk to callers. That’s right – and the longest call so far? Ten-and-a-half hours, according to Valerie.

Zappos Rrrrr Desk

Problems walk the plank in this department. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Most calls are handled by the regular customer service team members. They’re empowered to make magic happen for customers on the spot without having to escalate the call to someone more senior. Really difficult calls that require research or calming down the rare irate customer go to the “Rrrrrrrrr Desk.” This section is tricked out in pirate booty.

Zappos customer service team members are given time before their lunch breaks to write thank you notes to people they’ve talked to that morning. There are no set talking points, nothing they’re required to say, and they can decorate the cards any way they want. Talk about trust. And what happens when companies trust employees? That’s right: You boost engagement, morale and productivity.

Teams consist of about 12 employees, and they switch teams every six months in an effort to build team and family spirit, said Valerie.

In terms of “walking the talk,” I found it interesting that the white board Zappos uses to record each week’s call totals (see below) also features totals for thank-you cards sent and employee growth and learning classes. I’ve always believed that when you support employees with training, education and skill-building, you help them achieve their own goals, as well as the company’s, and you engage them at the same time. It’s win-win-win.

Zappos Continuous Learning

Zappos call count board and much, much more. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Zappos even offers employees sessions with a certified life coach to establish goals – personal or professional – create a plan for achieving them and receive support and encouragement along the way.

Zappos Coaching

Writing on the wall. Zappos employees express their joy over meeting goals. Photo by Vickie Bates.

One of the moving sights on the tour was this stairwell, where employees shared the goals they’ve achieved and everything they surmounted to get there. Some were about losing weight, gaining confidence, learning new skills. A graffito that really made me say, “Wow!,” mentioned creating an anti-bullying campaign at a child’s school.

I mean, Wow! What a great personal goal, and how cool that a company would care enough to support an employee in its success.

Zappos Monkey Row

Monkey Row at Zappos. Where the senior leaders sit. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Welcome to “Monkey Row,” where the guys who normally wear the monkey suits in a typical corporation sit. No one really dons formal-wear at Zappos, and even the CEO shares cubicle space with the rest of the gang. You can see the red and white “Tony Hsieh” sign in the center of the photograph, behind Valerie.

With something like three tours a day moving through the Zappos hallways, it was amazing at how generous everyone was. Employees twirled noisemakers as we walked through their workspace, cheered, said “Hello,” and basically made us feel warmly welcomed. They answered all questions, were happy to have us take photos, and then gave everyone on the tour a free copy of the beautiful Zappos 2011 Culture Book.

Zappos Culture Book

Yours truly with complimentary copy of the 2011 Zappos Culture Book. Photo by Rochelle Kanoff.

(Get your own free copy here.)

Beyond the daily free tours, Zappos Insights also offers one-on-ones for a small fee, deeper dives at a higher rate, and multi-day boot camps. Why is Zappos so intent on giving away the “secret sauce,” you may ask?

Hsieh discusses that in his book. He says, “Our belief is that our Brand, our Culture, and our Pipeline…are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run.”

“Everything else can and will eventually be copied.”

Basically, he’s happy to share, but he also knows that driving and implementing significant change in corporate culture is not the easiest thing to do. Hsieh believes that “although change can and will come from all directions, it’s important that most of the changes in the company are driven from the bottom up – from the people who are on the front lines, closer to the customers and/or issues.”

Not every company is willing to let that happen.

Zappos Name Tag

Zappos tour name tag. Photo by Vickie Bates.

If you’d like to learn more about the free tours or deeper dives, visit the Zappos Insights website or follow Zappos Insights on Twitter.

A big “thank you” to the Insights Team and Valerie for the fascinating look inside the unique Zappos culture.