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.

Tis the Season to Plan Your Awards Submissions

Dear fellow communicators, PR people and marketers:

I’m sure visions of a holiday break are dancing in your head right about now. You’re swamped with year-end reviews, next year’s budget, holiday parties, and what to give your administrative assistant so she or he will put up with you for the next 365 days.

If you’re feeling especially spent, perhaps it’s because you did such stellar work in 2012. That means now is exactly the right time to start thinking about how those programs might be recognized by the industry.

Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’ve got all the supporting materials your entry needs to make it awardable by checking out these helpful, tip-heavy posts.

To get yourself going, I highly recommend reading them in the order presented here:

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work
Getting yourself prepared, reviewing award-worthy work, filling in missing metrics and feedback, taking a hard look at whether your program stands a chance.

Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season
Writing tips and a section-by-section view of standard entry forms, guiding you on what you need to write to support your program effectively. Includes link for a FREE worksheet to help you organize your entry, showing the judges clear connections between research, objectives, tactics and results.

And for writers:

Writing Your Writing Award Entry
Make the most of your writing talents to highlight the key program areas judges want to see in your entry.

Additional Resources

IABC Gold Quill Awards offers you tips for writing an effective entry, shares the judging score sheet and provides a download of their webinar, “The Midas Touch,” with advice on completing an effective entry.

Early deadline for the Gold Quill Awards is Jan. 31, with final deadline March 5, 2013.

PRSA Silver and Bronze Anvil Awards provides the excellent “Anvil Thinking” video, featuring judges discussing what it takes to win one of these prestigious awards.

Early deadline for the Silver Anvil Awards is Feb. 8, with final deadline Feb. 22, 2013.

6 Tips That Will Take Your Infographics from Chartjunk to Valuable Content

Bison from the Cave of Altamira in Spain, considered the Sistine Chapel of cave painting. Photo by Ramessos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From saber-tooth tiger-bait to link-bait, infographics have come a long way. Here’s a guide to their invention, how to use them effectively, and how to avoid infographics that add to the “contentification” of social media rather than offering real insight.

A Brief History of Infographics

There have been infographics in one form or another from the time human beings first applied paint to cave walls. The earliest probably promoted the best hunting grounds: number of wildebeest at the watering hole, likelihood of being devoured by a saber-toothed tiger, mysterious monolith sightings…your basic caveman data.

Before there was writing, there were maps, as humans spread across the globe, traveling by land and sea. Then there were symbols signifying crops and livestock, illuminated church manuscripts, and the presentation of scientific data in graphs, histograms, bar and pie charts (which Florence Nightingale did not, as many have reported, invent).

As the 20th century got going, infographics became ubiquitous. We used them as subway maps, street signs, in the morning newspaper, on PowerPoint slides at meetings, and to attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials.

Today infographics rule the social media share-sphere. They substitute for press releases and resumes, white papers and detailed surveys – there is even an infographic about infographics.

Full of Visuals and Fury, Signifying Something or Other

People take in and learn information differently; some are more attuned to visual presentation, others find graphical information helpful for solidifying concepts they’ve read about. Richard Edelman, president and CEO of public relations firm Edelman, notes in a blog post on infographics that today’s PR person “must be as comfortable telling stories visually as we are with the written word.”

Edelman’s statement is as true for any profession as it is for PR, so it’s unfortunate that infographics have become an easy target for ridicule. But there’s no reason you need to suffer the slings and arrows of critics, if you follow some sage advice:

  • Be sure of your facts
  • Don’t distort data
  • Get a great graphic designer
  • Dive deep into details using links
  • Share rather than promote
  • Get all “CSI” on infographics before passing them along

Be sure of your facts – The best way to be sure of your facts is to do the research yourself, according to Tom Webster in his inspiring 2011 BlogWorld Los Angeles keynote, “Drowning in Numbers: Turning Social Media Data into Insight.”

After all, what you share in the social sphere reflects on your reputation as a reliable content provider. Unfortunately, social media is engendering what he calls “contentification” rather than insightful content, a “terrible torrent of bad data and infographics.”

Webster is vice president of Strategy for Edison Research, which handles exit polling during U.S. elections. He understands that finding the right answers requires time (and money, too, if you need to hire a benchmarking firm to gather and crunch the data).

“Data generated for the purposes of content creation is inherently incurious,” he says, “because it seeks to prove or show something, and not to learn something. Finding the real truth is a painstaking process of disconfirmation. You have a hypothesis, and you seek to prove it wrong.”

What he’s describing is the scientific method, which provides objective, measurable, repeatable standards and techniques for investigating and gleaning information. Yes, this takes time, when all you wanted was a clever-looking infographic to share on your blog and Twitter. But advocating for what Webster only half-jokingly calls the “Slow Data Movement” isn’t about meeting a deadline on an editorial calendar, it’s about finding “better answers,” data you can be sure is credible when it’s out in public representing you, your brand and your company.

While you’re at it, make sure you present the source of each piece of data on your infographic.

Don’t distort data – Social media already amplify the “truth effect,” notes Webster. When you see the same information retweeted and shared to Facebook and LinkedIn, it starts to feel true simply because of amplification.

Sketchy or overstated data in infographics can add a second layer of distortion.

Embellishing findings to make an infographic look more newsworthy, profound or sexy isn’t ethical, emphasizes Richard Sambrook, Edelman’s chief content officer, in that same Edelman blog. “We should engage with graphics but not exaggerate.”

Edelman’s blog goes on to quote artist and visualization expert Edward Tufte: “It is wrong to distort the data measures in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme.”

Remember that the recipients of infographics often are journalists trained to be skeptical of taking things at face value and well-versed in asking for data and details to back up assertions. You want to be able to stand – not hide – behind the work represented in your infographic.

Get a great graphic designer – Not as simple as it sounds. “The best visualizations use comparisons to make the case, with a central graphic contrasting specific data points,” explains Edelman. “They engage an audience by using a popular metaphor…Colors are used to show data patterns and enhance understanding, not as decoration.”

You don’t need someone who knows how to draw, you want to work with a designer savvy enough to translate concepts into compelling images.

Dive deep into details using links – I’m not sure why so many infographics are static images. They’re designed to live on websites, blogs and social media, so why not capitalize on interactive capability and offer your readers links to far more detailed information – and log more page visits on your site?

What you’re aiming for, as Edelman says, is an “interactive infographic that enables readers to control and explore data that has layers of complexity.”

It’s this ability to show readers the complexity of your research that enhances your credibility. And, while you’re embedding those links, connect readers to more information about yourself, too.

Share rather than promote – When you focus solely on content churn to feed an editorial calendar, what you miss is the purpose of social media. Conversation is the goal here – and that includes listening. Self-promotion is the byproduct, not the point, of good conversation.

One of the best instigators of rousing two-way conversation is insight, with its power to grab attention, make the mind race, and challenge assumptions. This is what happens when you take the time to put real research behind an infographic; this is “turning data into insight, instead of chartjunk,” affirms Webster.

On the technical level, make sure you offer an easy way for people to share your infographic and embed it into their own blogs and websites.

Get all “CSI” on infographics before passing them along – Once you understand the difference between good research and chartjunk – and consider the fact that members of your audience distinguish these, as well – it may give you pause before hitting Retweet.

Some helpful questions to ask yourself before sharing infographics:

  • Can you verify the facts? Are you even given the option (i.e., does the presenter provide data sources)?
  • How sound is the study methodology?
  • How large is the study population?
  • How recent is the data?
  • Is this something designed to promote rather than inform?
  • How would I feel if I shared this infographic and then saw reputable sources refuting the data in the social media universe later?

Insight drawn from verified data creates valuable visual information for your infographics, enlightens the social conversation, and enhances your own reputation as a content provider worth following.

Further reading on writing about statistics and research: “Statistical Significance: Making Sense of Numbers”

IABC Revamps Gold Quill Awards

I write regularly about awards programs in the PR, marketing and communications industries, so I was thrilled to receive an email last week, announcing significant updates to one of the major honors – IABC’s Gold Quill awards.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the International Association of Business Communicators and have served as a first-tier judge for the Gold Quills several times in the last two decades. Perhaps that makes me biased, but I’m convinced these changes will lead to a program that offers greater ease of entry and even better judging.

What’s changing and what does it mean for you? I’m working from an Aug. 30 email, from IABC Chair Kerby Meyers, which notes several important updates:

Online entries! – Yes, that deserves an exclamation point! The Gold Quills were the last major program to require a mailed entry. Sure, I’m an advocate of advance planning for award entries, but the reality is that most entrants are prepping their materials up to the very last minute. Relying on overnight delivery – and cramming everything into a giant notebook that had to meet a long list of requirements for how it looked and how it was organized – made the process that much more fraught. Now, every entry will be standardized thanks to online forms, and entrants have an extra 24 hours to double-check their submissions.

Longer entry period – There’s little excuse to be copy-and-pasting your entry into the online form five minutes before the deadline. According to the email, the Gold Quill program will open in October and entries will be accepted through the March 2013 deadline.

Standardized training for judges – Starting with the 2013 Gold Quill program, judges will be required to complete a training that ensures they are International Awards Evaluators in Good Standing, according to IABC. This, I think, will make the Gold Quills an exceptional awards program. In my experience (and not just as a judge for IABC), there’s a range of expertise in the judging room that includes long-time judges and newbies, 30-year marketing pros and new graduates in their first communications role. I don’t draw these distinctions to say that one is better than the other – judging should never be based on who’s been a judge before. What’s most valuable to the program and entrants alike is a consistent, fair, standardized set of judging criteria and a formalized way of training judges to understand and apply those criteria. For those interested in becoming an Evaluator in Good Standing, IABC will be communicating further information next month.

Those are the biggies. Additional changes include:

Eliminating first-tier evaluations – Now all entries will be judged by the aforementioned trained evaluators serving on a blue ribbon panel in one of five countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

Introducing a new scoring sheet – This ensures even more feedback on each part of the entrant’s workplan, which should be a welcome addition for everyone submitting work.

Adding more guidance for entrants – IABC already offers comprehensive guides, webinars and social media chats related to entry preparation, as well as a mentor program for members who haven’t won a Gold Quill. It’s always highly recommended that entrants make use of these; you’ll find a list of opportunities here, as well as under the Resources tab in the Gold Quill section of the IABC website. (Note that these will be updated with the just-announced program additions as the 2013 program gets under way in the next month.)

The IABC email mentions that the 2013 call for entries will be announced in late September, and available on the IABC website.

Related posts on writing a competitive entry for all of the major PR, marketing and communications awards programs:

Table of contents of No Bad Language posts on awards
Advance planning for writing a strong award program entry for your work

Is it Okay to Take an Admin Job to Get Your Foot in the Door?

Since today is Admin Professionals Day, I thought I’d address a sensitive question that seasoned PR, marketing and communications folks often hear from recent graduates, looking to get experience in the field:

“Should I take an Admin job to get my foot in the door with an agency or company?”

My answer is a definite “No.”

(This advice comes with the caveat that, even as we climb out of recession, jobs continue to be scarce, so if you desperately need to work and the only option is an Admin position in your industry, take it – and check out the tips at the end of this article.)

My response is never meant to dismiss the role of administrative professionals. They work exceptionally hard, multitasking across dozens of projects and requests, while keeping the office, its people, client relations, business processes, and technology on track and operating smoothly. They are the lifeblood of our workplaces, we couldn’t get by without them, and the fact that there is only one day a year that honors administrative pros is the real shocker, to my mind.

So why the big fat “No”?

It’s precisely because we depend so much on admins that these situations become fraught for everyone involved. The disconnect happens because the person who accepts the offer for an Admin position when they’d rather be at a higher pay grade (let’s call this person the Non-Admin-Admin) expects to take on development work – projects that will position the Non-Admin-Admin for a promotion to Associate. Meanwhile, the agency or department has enough administrative tasks to bury a battalion of Admins, which is why it posted and interviewed for people with specialized administrative skills.

Frequently, the Non-Admin-Admin has enough experience to be an Associate (there just isn’t an opening right now), but doesn’t know some of the necessary requirements for an Admin job, whether that’s maintaining databases or the delicate dance of keeping everyone scheduled and organized so they can focus on their work. When the Non-Admin-Admin doesn’t want to be an Admin, it’s painful all around, and everyone in the office ends up unhappy.

If you find yourself working as a Non-Admin-Admin, and you’re frustrated with the lack of forward momentum, here are a few key suggestions for career advancement:

Know your company’s promotion policy
Make sure you know the official HR policy on applying for new jobs and in-place promotions (don’t just rely on your manager or hearsay). Do ask people who’ve been promoted (from Admin to Associate, from Associate to Manager) if you can schedule a brief informational discussion with them or offer to buy them a coffee in exchange for some career mentoring. People love talking about their accomplishments, so find out what kinds of skills they needed to learn or projects they took on that enabled managers to see them in a promotable light.

Put a review process in place
Got four-to-six months before you’re eligible for promotion? That’s not an eternity in corporate life, and so not the time to sulk or fill the office with eau de bad attitude. Embrace this time with gusto and schedule a meeting with your manager pronto. Tell him that you see yourself as an Associate in six months, and that you’d like to put a development plan in writing that you’ll both review on a regular schedule. Ask for your manager’s honest assessment so that you have a realistic idea of the skills and behaviors you’ll agree to work on. You can ask questions to clarify, but this isn’t the time to argue with the boss. You’ll need her to sign off when you’ve achieved everything in your plan and are ready to move on.

Accept and excel at your Admin job
This one is absolutely crucial. There’s no question that the ability to succeed at a higher grade will be judged on success as an Admin. The prospect who leaves work undone, doesn’t support the team, acts as if administrative tasks are beneath him or her, shows up late, or, worse, winds up being disciplined for poor performance, will never be eligible for a promotion and may even find themselves unemployed. How you perform at your current position counts for (or against) you when you apply for your next job.

Volunteer for professional-level projects
This is the best way to learn new skills and practice new behaviors. Remember, you still need to keep your current job running like clockwork, but projects are a great way to learn more about the work you’ll be doing and make new allies who can help you navigate your career path at the company.

Learn new technology
Many small agencies and big companies are struggling to manage the additional workload of social media on top of all the existing client work. Learn the company’s blog publishing tool or how to post to its Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest accounts, and you may become indispensible. You’ll be doing the kind of work expected of an Associate and be seen in a new light.

Support your agency’s clients
Are the office’s exempt employees volunteering this weekend at a client’s charity walk-a-thon? Have they been spending lunch hours running around getting people to sign a petition for the client’s pet cause? Once you become an Associate, your focus will be on the client. If there’s a way to jump in now – as a development project, free from concerns about overtime pay – grab it. Like the previous two examples, this will give you the perfect chance to do work at a higher grade level and show everyone what you have to offer.