Zappos, the US online shoe and clothing company, has become a byword for leading customer service. It has grown rapidly from a start-up in 1999 to a $1bn-plus business selling more than 1000 brands. Its formidable growth has been credited to its focus on customer service and putting the customer experience at the heart of all aspects of its business. Driving this agenda is Rob Siefker, director of customer loyalty, who started at Zappos as a temporary call-centre employee in 2004. Now, Siefker is one of the key players responsible for maintaining what he describes as the retailer's 'world-class culture'.
What do you think is the biggest myth about good customer service?
People don't put their money where their mouth is. They talk about it, but they're not committed. They do it to market themselves, rather than because that's what they believe. Good customer service has to start with the top; it can't just happen on its own. It needs to be who you are and not just a business strategy.
Can you please all of the people all of the time?
You will always have customers whom you will never satisfy. However, it's a very small percentage and we have a group of people focusing on that.
Your brand has been built on recommendations and word-of-mouth endorsement, what's the secret to achieving this?
All the interactions need to be great. If people don't have an emotional reaction that inspires them to share their experience, then they won't. So something that's just good is unlikely to be shared; something that's surprising and has a 'wow' factor - and it doesn't have to be complicated - will help seed that storytelling.
Isn't working in a call centre ultimately a really dull job? How do you balance that with the company's aim of happy employees?
We are not your typical call centre; our employees are given a lot of freedom.
They're not boxed in; we don't create a robotic experience for our employee or the customer. We invest in growth, and people have opportunities to do new things - they don't have to sit and do the same job over and over. We run a balance between a human call centre and an efficient one.
Your call-centre staff don't have scripts. How do you make that work?
Hiring the right people, training them, giving them the tools and constantly providing guidance and feedback. Ultimately, we have human beings talking to human beings, and we need our customers to talk to somebody and feel connected to the brand. That won't happen if they feel they're talking to a robot regurgitating information. We don't have call times, we'd just say avoid two things - politics and religion - but that's just our advice.
How do you avoid them making mistakes?
Even if you don't give them this freedom, they are going to make mistakes. If you hire people and you don't trust them, then you shouldn't have hired them. The chances of people making catastrophic errors that will have an impact on the business are pretty small.
Every employee spends two weeks in the call centre as part of their training, should every company adopt this?
The contact centre - and phone specifically - is one of our greatest branding devices. We are a customer-service company, so the best thing you can do to reinforce that is have people talk to customers in a real-life shopping situation. That experience has an impact on everything else in the company; you can always look back on that experience and think: how does this decision I'm about to make have an impact on the experience they have? It works for us, it's a huge investment. I'm not sure every company would be willing to (do it), but training relating to customers and the relationship is important.
How has social media altered the rules of engagement in customer service?
I don't think it has changed as drastically as people think. We're on Twitter and Facebook because that's where we can interact with customers and reinforce our brand message. To this day, the phone is the main channel where you interact in a private space with the customer. You can't resolve a customer's order on Twitter very easily.
How does the business maintain its culture as it grows?
Hiring the right people and having a set of core values. We train to it, evaluate employee performance based on it, and we're fanatical about having a great culture. People outside the business say you can't maintain the culture as you grow; I say that's not true - it's up to us, not your opinion. We are in control. It changes in a negative way only if we let it.
- 2002: Graduated from Santa Clara University, California
- 2002-2004: Odd jobs and travelling
- January 2004: Joined Zappos in San Francisco as a call-centre employee. Worked his way up via roles such as team leader and manager
- 2010: Director of customer loyalty, Zappos
Rob Siefker will be speaking at Marketing's Customer Experience Management conference, 20 March 2013. To register, visit www.customerexperienceconf.com