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What I Learned During My Visit to Zappos

My visit to Zappos!

Last week, at the end of a long road trip of speaking engagements and meetings, I enjoyed a special treat–a visit to the headquarters of online retailer Zappos.com.

You may know Zappos for their amazing selection of shoes (and now clothes, accessories, and many other items). Or, you may know them for free shipping and free returns in the friendly white boxes. But in my hunt for places where people are bringing their superpowers to work, Zappos jumped onto my radar screen after I read CEO Tony Hsieh’s book, [amazon_link id=”0446563048″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose[/amazon_link].

So here are the five most important things I learned during my visit to Zappos. And while your CEO may not have the vision of Tony Hsieh (who sits in a workstation in “monkey row”–see photo), I’m betting there’s an idea here for you to try for yourself to get–and stay–in your superpower space.

1. Clarity matters.

No matter who you talk to at Zappos, you can see and feel that everyone is clear about living the company’s core values. That might be because the values are unique and memorable, such as “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness” and “Deliver WOW through Service.” Quite a change from the boring, generic and often meaningless words that are used in the values statements of companies around the world. (As a client once told me, “On the door it says we value innovation, yet I can’t get my new idea past my boss.”)

Every action and business decision, down to providing teams a small stipend for celebrations and office decorations, can be tied to one of the values.

  • Red Cape Revolutionary action: If your company’s values aren’t clear, do you know what your personal ones are? I often find that when something’s not working at work, it’s because our personal values are conflicting with the values of our organization. Clarity works for Zappos, and it can work for you.

2. Fun doesn’t have to be a distractor.

One thing you notice about the Zappos environment is that there’s a lot going on. It’s loud. Colorful. Friendly.

Fun isn’t an afterthought–it’s the main thought. Even the practical aspects of call center management are made fun. For example, actual street signs hang above the cubicle rows to help colleagues identify where they are on campus. (Plus, since they switch seats every six months, this helps no one get lost!)

  • Red Cape Revolutionary action: Even if fun isn’t a core value in your office, where can you create a little for yourself? Maybe it’s as  simple as bringing in something colorful to cover up the taupe fabric on your workstation, or inviting a couple like-minded colleagues to a monthly lunch to talk about books, movies, or something creative. The best fun is organically grown–what would be fun to you?

3. Careful hiring matters.

Zappos is growing fast, and hiring (web developers and programmers who want to live in Vegas, please apply). But because their culture and environment is so important to them, the hiring process is careful and deliberate. And s-l-o-w, which may seem surprising for an environment that moves so fast.

For many jobs, the process starts with several online skills test. (I didn’t ask how many people drop out after those tests, but you can imagine that there is a automatic screen there for motivation.) Also, in addition to screening for the job requirements, the initial application and interview process may include questions like “On a scale of 1-10, how weird are you and why?” Rigid thinkers need not apply.

During my tour, our guide Rocco even opened the door to a glass-walled room where an interview was taking place, laughing and waiving at the candidate. After shutting the door, he told us the surprise interruption helps the team see in real-time how the candidate handles the unexpected. (For you HR geeks, that’s extreme behavioral interviewing!)

Hiring doesn’t end with a job offer. In keeping with their value to “Be Humble, ” everyone hired goes through their 4-week customer loyalty training (part company onboarding, part call center training), and some team members drop out after that. However, even their new CFO, Chris Nielsen, completed this training, amid a class of 20-something pierced and tattooed future phone reps. Can you imagine your CFO sitting in a call center classroom for four weeks? One of the team told us that everybody knew this was happening and it served as a reinforcement that their culture was respected by the new guy in the C-suite.

  • Red Cape Revolutionary action: I know from my work with leaders and managers that when you have an open position to fill, you wanted it filled yesterday. But the Zappos process is proof that investing time to with candidates pays off in fewer challenges later. Separately, for those of you who seeking job or even industry changes, it’s a good lesson for you to take your time and do your homework on the culture and environment–even if it’s not a formal part of the company’s process. Knowing what you’re getting into pays off.

4. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

I can think of few businesses that might be willing to throw open their doors to strangers and tell all. I asked questions I thought might get a PR-like answer, like “What’s the biggest challenge you’re having right now.” (Answer: distribution systems integration with their new owner, Amazon.) “With no individual call center scores, how do you measure performance and increase pay?” (Answer: measures are based on increased learning and adding new skills successfully to increase your flexibility, for example, adding the ability to do live online chat to your ability to answer incoming calls.)

The only thing I was prevented from doing was to photograph their team phone stats board, which showed average time to answer (seconds, not minutes) and monthly sales figures (let’s just say a lot of people needed shoes in September.)

  • Red Cape Revolutionary action: What’s great about your company, department, or even your own job that you could share with others? Maybe you aren’t ready to open up your space to tours, but could you write a blog post, make a video, or just show up at a professional event and tell your story? At a minimum, you’re always welcome to brag on yourself here in the comments or tell us what you’re doing on Facebook! I love to hear what’s working for you!

5. Coaching works.

Okay, okay, as a professional coach, I know this, but it’s always nice to see more real-life examples. Zappos has Goal Coaches on staff, and team members can sign up for a 4-week stint to focus on one particular change they’d like to make (yes, there is a waiting list.) The changes can be related to work, but often they are personal, like getting their finances in order or losing weight. After their success, there’s a  wall they can write on to share their story (see photo).

  • Red Cape Revolutionary action: It’s a myth to think you can’t make changes in a short time. If you have a change you need to make in your work or life, now’s the time to get started. In fact, here at Red Cape Revolution, we’re creating some new, simple ways for you to get the support you want in the time you have. Stay tuned as we launch these in 2012! (Psst–the best way to stay tuned is to subscribe to our free twice-monthly Community News here. You’ll also get our 12-day Quick Tips series, “Reinvent Your Life at Work.”

That’s it! I’d love to hear your reactions or other questions–in fact, as a special thanks to you, I’ll be sending a copy of [amazon_link id=”0446563048″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]”Delivering Happiness”[/amazon_link] to someone randomly selected from among ALL comments posted on this blog (just “leave a reply” below) or shared on our Red Cape Revolution Facebook page!

Will it be you?? Talk to us and see!!

One response to “What I Learned During My Visit to Zappos”

  1. Loved the Zappos write up! I order from them (shoes, dresses) and it’s clear there’s something different about their culture that results in noticably great service.