Recently I had the good fortune to hear the Zappos story first hand.
A rather jet lagged Alfred Lin, the Zappos COO and co-creator of the online shoe retailer which is now absorbed into the greater footprint of the mighty Amazon brand, stepped out on stage at the ECEW conference (European Customer Experience World) in London.
Despite that aching brain, he delivered a well rehearsed patter on why Zappos has become the poster child for Customer Experience, Employee Engagement, , Enterprise 2.0 culture or whatever intended revolution sat in the minds of those that hung on his every insight. We all enjoyed an impressive speaker who had an even more impressive story to showcase.
As I said, it was good to hear it first hand because it wiped away a layer of frothy hyperbole that has already built up on 2010’s favorite customer experience case study. We were treated to the tour with all the highlights and ‘wow’ factor that a radical culture engenders in people who are fortunate enough to be really living their dream as opposed to just going to work.
Without question, we loved it. It made us feel good. At the end, most made a mental note to buy “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh CEO and learn more of the true mission that a customer obsessive culture should apparently aspire too.
So the flight was worth it. For the Zappos brand this was another audience in the bag, now groomed for advocacy. Such are the spoils of being plumb center in the zeitgeist! Anyway it’s well deserved for a brand that has, by all accounts, transformed the experience of shoe shopping. The audience felt inspired and impatient to re-read their notes Monday morning before raising their own organisation’s game plan.
What Lessons Can Really Be Transferred?
But that’s the problem with Zappos. It’s just not normal enough. It’s not even contained to being best in class. In truth, it’s way beyond that. In fact it’s in another galaxy as far as the underpinning foundations of culture and ethos that breeds such exciting daily behaviour.
So, in the face of such charismatic presence, here’s the real question that needs asking. Bar its pure inspirational factor which of course scores a big fat 10, what can brands, whose people in the main just feel they are going to work, usefully learn and adapt from Zappos?
This is a brand so confident in its own ‘sex and sizzle’ that it routinely offers $2,000 to tempt new recruits to leave. Most of the audience listening to Alfred Lin knew that could become an expensive gesture for the kinds of brands they were more familiar with. They also knew in their heart of hearts that single gestures do not a cultural revolution make.
Because the ‘real thing’ is somehow indivisible. It cannot be reduced to its parts. Culture, behaviour and their combined impact on stakeholders are all part of the same thing. It actually lives as an unbroken flow of energy and has the spark of life within it from which people draw their own. That’s what Zappos has delivered and why it’s just so darned attractive. The fact they sell shoes is incidental. They could probably conquer any business model. And they know it!
I say this as someone who had the great fortune to work in an equivalent culture during the early 1980’s and 1990s. Some in the UK of that era will remember what a visit to the Programmes culture was like. As radical then as Zappos is now.
We knew from much experimentation with client cultures who wanted a ‘piece,’ that it was possible to light a fire within the heart of a team. But that would quickly become extinguished if left in a cultural desert, without the oxygen of life to sustain it.
In other words it’s an all or nothing game. Zappos is exactly that. Borne out of vision. Surfing the consequences of that empowerment. No doubt amazed at the chemistry this energy is having on everyone touched by it.
But it started with nothing more than the seed of an experience. More importantly it started without baggage, an incumbent culture to win over, or a leadership that utterly fails to inspire. That’s the same for all the mould breaking brands that emerge every so often to conquer a market by doing what the rest cannot. Serve their customers with passion in a unique style. It wins most every time it’s tried.
That though does not help those stuck in the ‘same old same old’. What should they do? Sometimes a great person arrives whose personal energy and drive provides new context and possibility such that the organisation is allowed to escape its past. But mainly it’s too great an ask. More typically, there is simply no desire to transform, just to optimise performance by cutting costs and forcing everyone to work harder.
So that’s the trouble with Zappos. In reality it’s forbidden fruit for the majority. A glimpse of heaven on earth: how it ought to be, but seldom ever is. But the damning thing about the ‘real thing’ is that nothing else afterwards quite satisfies even if you can’t have it.
So it remains vivid in the memory of those that witness. Maybe that’s why Zappos cannot resist the temptation to try and sell their DNA. They are now in the corporate transformation business as well as shoes. I’m sure they will monetise that as successfully as footwear.
The Secret Of Truly Great Organisations
For those that cannot afford the price of that ticket but would love to know, here’s the punchline based on what I learnt two decades back.
There is only one way. Become it. And that must originate at the nucleus of your organisation if you want greatness to erupt with an unstoppable force.