Controversial Company Practice Proves Shoe-in for Online Success

Portent Staff Jun 6 2008


An interface only a shoemonger could love

shoes.jpgI am looking at a site so cluttered and ugly, it connotes every $1 table yard sale you’ve ever seen. I am looking at a site with such a dizzying array of calls to action, you feel like you are on a street corner in Tijuana. I am looking at a site where I and every single one of my friends shops, regularly and enthusiastically.

If you haven’t been living on a smoke-monster-ridden island, you’ve heard by now about and their amazing offer to new employees. Here’s an excerpt from Harvard Business Publishing with the details:

It’s a hard job, answering phones and talking to customers for hours at a time. So when Zappos hires new employees, it provides a four-week training period that immerses them in the company’s strategy, culture, and obsession with customers. People get paid their full salary during this period. After a week or so in this immersive experience, though, it’s time for what Zappos calls “The Offer.” The fast-growing company, which works hard to recruit people to join, says to its newest employees: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit!

An online business sinking oodles of money into impeccable employee training and charismatic customer service-at the expense of slick interfaces and intuitive onsite usability? That’s Internet marketing heresy…right?

It’s called retail therapy because it’s supposed to be therapeutic

With a projected revenue of $1 billion this year, up from $70 last year, Zappos is growing like the gladiator sandal craze sweeping summer 2008. Some more callous individuals could credit their success to certain shrewd business policies: a four million deep shoe selection, four day shipping, free returns. But this writer would argue that all these little economical perks only add up the huge emotional benefit Zappos offers. In the end, Zappos is simply friendlier and more caring than the other more spectacular, nee severe online shoe retailers (cue grim look at month-late Lands End ballerina flats).

Zappos knows that people don’t really shop in order to own whatever they purchase. They shop to celebrate, to splurge, to console, and to feel indulged. The sooner other Internet marketers catch on to this simple fact, they’ll jump on the bedside manner bandwagon being paved by sites like Apple and Zappos. This doesn’t mean you have to pool all your energy into making a warm and fuzzy site. Both of these companies manage to deliver extraordinary customer service without a whiff of bedroom slippers. But some way or another, you need to communicate that you care about what your customers care about, and you are going to make their life better.

The Harvard article acknowledges this when it says “But it’s the emotional connection that seals the deal. This company is fanatical about great service—not just satisfying customers, but amazing them.”

Nice Sites Finish First

The success of Zappos got me thinking about all the other sites I troll most regularly, all of which are guilty of the gravest internet marketing sins. There’s the horribly functioning MySpace, where unexpected errors pop up as regularly as new indie bands. There’s Facebook, where a broken application prevented me from feeding my poor little online fox for weeks and having to endure the humiliation of a bad owner score. How much am I on these sites, despite their grievous technological imperfections? Oh, about once an hour, I’d say. Why? Because they are the same sites that make it possible for me to connect with long lost friends from school, family members I’d never met, and global acquaintances in exotic places whom I would never be able to communicate with otherwise.

The moral? Even in a faceless marketplace, people crave good relationships, whether with an old college pal or a customer service person who is expressing genuine care about their complaint. On it’s face, there’s no difference between Zappos and the I-forbid-you-to-shop-here shoe forest of the Nordstrom Rack. The single factor that saves Zappos from being an online casualty is kick-ass, no-holds-barred, brilliant customer service-and this is something every internet marketing company and website owner should be learning from.

At my company, we’re working on a compromise. We’re cultivating a new feel we call “professionable” which combines super professional service with a cheeky personal touch. So we’ve taken our top-notch team and added all their baby pictures to our website. It’s not quite a $1000 bribe to quit, but it is our little way of putting the personal back in the online paradigm. On that note, we’d love to have you stop by sometime.

tags : digital marketingecommerceonline marketingzappos