Featured Image for the blog: The Customer Service Strategies Behind Zappos' Success

If you’ve ever shopped on Zappos.com, you know the site isn’t overly flashy. It’s simply an ecommerce store boasting popular, brand-name items like Adidas running shoes and Calvin Klein bags.

On the surface, Zappos appears to be an average ecommerce company with a presence that’s comparable to competitors. And yet, Zappos is a household name – one that reached $1 billion in sales in less than 10 years.

They’ve built a brand full of loyal customers turned raving fans. In fact, some 75% of Zappos’ purchases come from returning customers. Not only are Zappos’ customers loyal, but they’re brand advocates and promoters, too. An impressive 44% of new customers heard about Zappos via word of mouth.


Because their phenomenal customer service speaks for itself. The power behind the Zappos brand is the team of agents who deliver spectacular service to customers. And those agents thrive in a culture built on empowerment – where they’re encouraged to make incredible connections with the people who reach out to them each day.

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Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh takes an unconventional approach to customer service.

In fact, Zappos culture was once perfectly described as being proudly-weird. Hsieh doesn’t analyze every expense of customer service or the contact center. He ditches the all-too-common mentality that the job of a contact center is to operate at the lowest cost, highest efficiency possible.

Actually, the metrics he cares about have nothing to do with efficiency. Instead, they have everything to do with how satisfied a customer is at the end of a service interaction. Agents don’t use scripts and they never upsell.

Zappos’ customer service has one, simple goal: to deliver customer happiness.

The customer service strategies behind Zappos’ success that you can implement today.

1. Create a culture of people who believe in your company’s values.

Zappos developed a set of key values that lives at the heart of their company culture. And, they rally every employee around those core values and shared purpose.

Job candidates are thoroughly interviewed and screened to ensure their values match those of Zappos. And they test new employees’ commitment by offering them $2,000 to quit after 2 weeks of training.

If the employee doesn’t take the payout after two weeks, Zappos leaders introduce them to an entirely human way of work. Those who choose to stay on are immersed in a culture of caring and friendship with leadership teams who treat their employees well.

Zappos customer service puts people first

The company exemplifies what it means to make employees happy, so they can make customers happy.

They encourage a fun environment filled with co-creation. And they offer employees valuable incentives, like: continued learning through Zappos University, the opportunity to find a new career path with internal Shadow Sessions, a network of life coaches, flexible work schedules, and volunteer opportunities.

Zappos leadership purpose

To develop a great culture, companies have to create a set of core company values for your company to rally around. Then in the contact center, you have to coach your agents towards those values. Develop a leadership purpose that combines your company goals with your agent well-being and performance to drive empowerment like Zappos’.

2. Empower your agents to provide unique resolutions to customers.

Would you allow your call center agent to do the following without approval?

  1. Talk with a customer on the phone for 10 hours and 29 minutes.
  2. Send get well soon flowers to a customer’s ill mother on the company’s dime.
  3. Refund a customer for a defective product, and then send a replacement for free.
  4. Send a care package to a soldier in Afghanistan who called to exchange his shoes.

Zappos does.

And by doing so, they’re setting the bar for a positive agent experience. Turns out, the number one factor impacting an agent’s experience at work is the empowerment they feel to offer customers unique resolutions.

Hsieh explains:

“I think the main thing is just trust [the customer service reps] and let them make their own decisions. Most call centers are set up by policies and so the actual person that’s answering the phone doesn’t really have the ability to do anything. If you…call most customer service places, if you ask for anything that’s not normal they have to talk to a supervisor or just say ‘oh our policy doesn’t allow that’ and whatever. So we generally try to stay away from policies, we just ask our reps to do whatever they feel is the right thing to do for the customer and the company. And that’s actually really uncomfortable for a lot of reps that come from other call centers. We kind of have to untrain their bad habits.”

Zappos loosens the reins and puts employees closest to the customer in control of the customer’s fate. But that employee empowerment doesn’t come naturally. It takes tons of training and coaching (or untraining, according to Hsieh) to empower employees to make in-the-moment decisions that benefit customers AND the company.

The key here is to support a strong coaching and training culture rather than on strict policies and procedures. When agents always have to ask for approval or squirm around policies, they don’t feel trusted. And that kind of restrictive environment leads to a negative customer experience.

3. Prioritize outcomes over metrics.

Zappos’ agents love their jobs because they’re empowered to get creative to make customers happy. We’re not talking about the happiness that comes with a casual 15-minute phone or email conversation. Zappos’ agents pride themselves on delivering true happiness. And, that often means connecting with customers outside of their short customer service interactions.

>> Learn More: Use Sharpen Insights to improve your interactions (not just your metrics)

In fact, Zappos has a dedicated space on their website where agents can share their customer stories. There’s the story of an agent’s 10-hour phone call where service was put before metrics.

Zappos metrics to watch

And, with tales of surprise packages and thank you cards, you see how much agents love making a positive impact.

One of our favorite stories is from an agent named Kelli:

Kelli is a perky agent who works the late shift. She got a live chat message from a customer at 4:30 a.m. Some agents would be dismissive and rush through an interaction that early in the morning, but not Kelli.

Through her conversation with her customer, Tommy, Kelli learned that Tommy is in the military. He’d ordered a pair of shoes to wear while he’s in Afghanistan. She talked to him for nearly two hours – exchanging stories and learning of Tommy’s nickname, gummy bear. After Kelli shipped a new pair of shoes to Tommy and ended their convo, she felt the urge to do more.

“Our chat eventually ended, and although I was able to WOW Tommy that day with a simple shoe exchange, my heart told me to do more.

“Thus, I decided to send him a care package, and in it, I included a Zappos culture book, Rice Krispies treats, a five-pound gummy bear and a 12-inch, hand-stitched teddy bear that I aptly named Tommy.”

As if it could get much better than that, Tommy sent a thank you letter and pictures to Kelli, and so did his Colonel. The base commander told Kelli that people like her make such a difference in the soldiers’ lives. And, her simple act of kindness boosted the morale of his entire unit.

After this, Kelli recruited help from her fellow Zappos agents, and they sent dozens of packages, supplies, and thank you cards to all the soldiers at Tommy’s base for the holidays.

Kelli embraced what’s important to us as people – connection. And she built that connection to spark happiness and improve well-being with one of her customers.

Zappos holistic employee experience

Zappos sets the bar.

Companies known for their customer service, like Zappos, set a standard in service that other companies have to match now, too. If my cousin Jenny buys shoes from Zappos and gets a hand-written note with a package of gummy bears in the mail from the agent she spoke to, she’s going to expect that same level of service when she buys a vacuum cleaner from a different company next week.

Keep Zappos’ customer service success in mind as you set your customer experience strategies. Their billion dollars in sales and thousands of raving fans certainly prove that employee empowerment and a positive culture lead to customer happiness.


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We originally published this post on September 9, 2016, and we updated it on February 6, 2019.