Everyone knows what it’s like calling a company’s customer service department: If you’re unlucky, you’re routed to Asia where an outsourced staff member reads a script in halting English.
Online retailer Zappos, by contrast, has 500 employees in a call centre in Las Vegas who have all received seven weeks of training on how to make customers happy. The company (now a unit of Amazon) has been called “insane” and “fanatical” for the way it will do anything to please its customers. The stories are legendary, and are a key part of its brand:
- In 2011, Zappos sent flowers to a woman who ordered six different pairs of shoes because her feet were damaged by harsh medical treatments.
- Last March, a customer service rep physically went to a rival shoe store to get a specific pair of shoes for a woman staying at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Vegas when Zappos ran out of stock.
- The same year, it overnighted a free –free! — pair of shoes to a best man who had arrived a wedding shoeless.
- It also paid the tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike one day last November.
- Oh, and Zappos employees don’t read from scripts.
Those facts, and more, led to a 2010 campaign in which real customer calls were used, with puppet actors, such as this one in which a woman wants to return a dress because she’s “not emotionally ready” to wear it (and has thus stashed it in the garage “under a tarp”):
Business Insider interviewed senior brand marketing manager Michelle Thomas and director of customer loyalty Rob Siefker about Zappos’ CRM-oriented corporate culture.
Zappos offers free returns no questions asked. This is part of the company’s appeal but it must also be a significant cost. How does it helps or hurt Zappos’ margins? Does the company ever discusses reining it in or outsourcing it?
Siefker: Returns are part of our business model. In fact, we encourage customers to order multiple sizes if they’re unsure of what to order, and then they can return the size that doesn’t work for them. It’s really how you want to look at it, but providing this service is an investment we make in order to provide the best possible service for our customers. We have customer reviews and we add details for products in order to help customers with their shopping experience, and that assists them with their shopping.
Does it prevent your from discounting or otherwise competing on price?
Michelle Thomas: In the end, we’re trying to provide the best possible customer experience, and do so in a fun and high touch manner. We have great customer friendly policies, an amazing selection, and super fast, free shipping!
Have you ever considered moving call centre services to a foreign country or anything like that?
Siefker: No, we haven’t talked about that at all. In 2004, the company headquarters was moved to Las Vegas and growing the call centre was a big part of the decision to move. We wanted everyone to remain close, and we wanted to make sure we reinforced our service culture.
How long does it take to train a Zappos call-taker?
Siefker: All new hires in Las Vegas go through four weeks of initial training. This is for everyone, no matter what job they will actually do after the four weeks. It incorporates a lot things, and a big focus is on helping our customers. We do this because we want everyone to have the experience of talking with our customers, and it also helps us during the holidays when we need everyone to put in hours to help our customers. Contact centre employees have an additional three weeks of training after the first four weeks, so for them it’s a total of seven weeks before it’s full speed ahead in the call centre.
Zappos uses its customer calls in its advertising. Was that your idea or your ad agency Mullen’s idea? What is your annual advertising budget?
Thomas: For the “Happy People Making People Happy” campaign in 2010, we did use customer calls as a way to demonstrate the need to support the three C’s: clothing, customer service, and culture (we’ve since added a 4th C for community). During the initial RFP process, [ad agency] Mullen took a deep dive into the culture and sat in on actual customer calls. They were inspired by the power of our Customer Loyalty Team and simply found a way to take one of our best assets and best branding devices and make it fun and interesting. In fact, we just broke our longest call record with an eight-hour and 47 minute call!
The focus of your advertising is often on customer service, rather than on shoes and shoe brands. Discuss the challenge there — after all, people shop for shoes because they want shoes, not because they want good service.
Thomas: We definitely have a lot of layers to our communications strategy and use different media to message different things. One definite challenge is that we are still seen as a shoe retailer when in fact we sell much more than that! Our product catalogue spans from clothing to footwear to house wares to beauty to accessories and even sporting goods! Perceptions are not easy to change overnight unless you’re willing to be bold. The one constant is that we are a service company that happens to sell __________ (fill in the blank). Our biggest efforts revolve around building likeability around our brand so that consumers turn to a brand that they trust, find reliable, and have an emotional connection with. That’s where service comes in!