What does Friendly Customer Service Mean? A Conversation with Zappos.

Friendly Zappos

Recently over at AmazingServiceGuy, Kristina Evey wrote a post about the friendliness factor and how it relates to customer satisfaction. In her post, Kristina wrote that:

Customers make their purchasing decisions based on how they feel. When they are developing relationships with their service and product supplies, a person who smiles, is inviting, and is easy to talk to ranks high in the preferred qualities that customers list.

Think about the last great customer experience you had (maybe on Zappos, maybe in your local convenience store). Now think about the last really bad experience you had with a customer support person – there’s a fair chance that much of the difference between the two exchanges wasn’t about the product or service that the organization provides, but rather was simply a reflection on how personable, how helpful and, yes, how friendly the customer service person was.

While seemingly obvious, what do we actually mean when we talk about “friendliness” in customer service?

To investigate this further, I got in touch with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, has built its business through a legendary level of openness, friendliness and service. I wanted to ask Tony what friendliness means in his company and how they enact it at the customer level.

Everyone says they’re a customer focused business, whether or not they mean it. How does Zappos ensure that it’s genuinely customer focused?

Zappos is pretty selective in their hiring. Everyone that becomes a part of our family must be a culture fit. By having great relationships internally and having fun, we are better able to serve our customers. Also, from day one, every employee is empowered to make decisions on their own that will positively impact the customer. If we’re ever unsure of what to do, we ask ourselves “WWTD?” (What Would Tony Do?)

Many people have talked about friendliness in relation to customer service – what do you think about the balance between friendliness and professionalism?

For the type of people that we hire, this balance comes naturally. We like to have fun at Zappos, but the customer’s happiness always comes first.

How do you ensure that your customer support staff are genuine with your customers – what do you do to keep them fresh?

One of Core Values is “Pursue Growth and Learning”. We constantly offer classes for employees. These are not just about procedure and protocol, but about happiness, stress management, and other useful topics. We also rotate customer service teams so that every employee can experience every team.

It always happens, the customer is always right but there’s times when they’re simply wrong. At which point does your duty to be reverent to your staff overcome the duty to be reverent to your customers? How do you deal with this seeming conflict?

We want every customer, no matter what the situation, to have a positive Zappos experience. We look at these situations as an opportunity to earn a customer for life. When we deliver what that customer asks for and fulfill their unstated needs, that customer will not only be loyal, but they will tell their friends and family about us. We do have management and specialty teams in place to handle situations that a representative may not be comfortable with as well.

You talk about emotional impact on customers and this fits in with the theories about friendliness – but there are some who believe that a negative emotional impact (think the aloof waiter or the superior fashion clothing salesperson) in fact has its place in creating customer loyalty – any thought on this in your case?

We don’t believe in making our customers feel inferior. Whether that is an effective technique or not, it runs contrary to what Zappos stands for.

What place do tools have in delivering great customer service. My contention is that good systems and tools take drag out of the system and make it easier to give customer exception experiences – do you agree and do you have any specific examples in your case?

Absolutely. Another of our Core Values deals with open and honest communication. Employees at all levels are encouraged to take note of any system errors or glitches and report them. We also have regular “Happiness Surveys” to assess how employees feel about the systems and policies that are in place.

So… let’s boil this down to some key takeaways that other organizations can use in their own situations:

  • Hire well. Look at culture fit and make sure your people can have fun together – having fun within organization maps to creating a fun externally facing organization
  • Let employees grow and develop – personal and professional development should be encouraged
  • Think deeply about how you deal with those “problem customers” (escalation teams etc)
  • Empower your employees to be part of developing the tools that help make for friendly service

If you’re a friendly company that wants to share with the world your recipe for customer success, drop me a line, I’d love to talk!