What Zappos Can Teach You About Becoming Irresistible to Customers

image of zappos logo

What can a well-run shoe store teach you about your own online business?

Well, everything.

If you’ve ever bought anything from the mega online shoe store Zappos, or if you’ve so much as heard them mentioned, the word that comes to mind is probably service.

But there’s more to the Zappo’s secret sauce than free shipping and some nice people on the phone.

They embody three important lessons that any blogger, online marketer, or small business owner can learn … and start finding customers that don’t just like you, they love you.

Let’s look at each, and how you can apply them to your business.

1. It all starts with passion and purpose

You might think it would be hard to imbue a shoe store with meaning. But Zappos does it.

A lot of companies have a mission statement. Nearly all of them are lame. Instead of another dreary statement about “synergy” and “excellence,” Zappos lives what they call their core values, which include things like “create fun and a little weirdness,” and “be humble.”

It all originates with founder Tony Hsieh’s insatiable curiosity and penchant for doing work he loves.

What Zappos does comes from their culture — and that culture is grounded in those core values. The two cannot be separated.

Without their core values, Zappos is just one of a million e-commerce sites. With them, they become something remarkable.

We have an environment where we empower our employees to do what’s best for the customer with minimal policies and hoops to jump through in order to do it. It’s about giving them a purpose to their job as opposed to just answering questions and taking orders.
~ Maura Sullivan, Senior Manager of Zappos’ Customer Loyalty team

Whether you’re running a company of one or one hundred, you need to have some values beyond “I need to book three new clients this week.”

Integrity and a sense of purpose are highly attractive to customers, and they make your business a lot more enjoyable to run.

2. Everything is customer service

Every action you take — the design of your web site, your content, how you answer email — communicates something to your customer. About serving her. About helping her.

It’s about under-promising and over-delivering.

At Zappos, the customer loyalty team is empowered to regularly go above and beyond to make the customer feel important and special.

This can mean a care package, random freebies thrown in with your order, or anything else they feel like doing.

Again, Sullivan says,

Our employees don’t have to be passionate about shoes, or anything else we sell, but they need to be passionate about service and helping people. That’s where great customer experiences come about — being able to help someone, it can change their day — even if it was just a pair of shoes.

When you bake surprise and delight into your business model, people talk about that. A lot. This is the secret to being a truly remarkable business. Accomplishing the unexpected is the norm.

When you see everything you do as service (and therefore, as marketing), everything you do will become just a little better. And customers will notice.

3. Keeping a lean state of mind

Some web startups are run like the former Soviet Union. Lots of rules. Lots of processes. And not much reward for going outside the lines.

And then there are those Fortune 500 companies that function like family businesses. (Some of them still are.)

The difference is mindset.

Unencumbered by organizational bureaucracy, Zappos’ employees are free to do the work they signed up for. Sure, they’ve got manuals and policies, but those only exist to help employees help customers.

Being this nimble is a choice.

And, admittedly, it can be a challenge at times, especially for a company the size of Zappos.

So how do they do it?

Communication is key, especially when making a change or something that will affect the day to day. In a company that is constantly reinventing and redefining itself, making sure everyone is up to date and on the same page is crucial.

Stay nimble. Stay flexible. And as you reinvent and redefine yourself, communicate with the people who need to know about it — your customers, and your employees if you have them.

You may even want to go the Copyblogger route with your business plan, and start talking to your customers before you have something to sell.

Make sure those lines of communication are open. This is as important on the day you start as the day you sell your business to Amazon for umpty million dollars.

What’s compelling about Zappos is their focus on connection. From the “top” down, it’s all about relationships.

They make sure passion and purpose are the fuel for all the work they do, and they never forget that the business lives or dies on how well they serve the customer.

You can do the same.

How about you?

Is there something you admire about Zappos that you’d like to do more of in your business? Let us know about it in the comments.

About the Author: Jeff Goins is a writer, idea guy, and online marketer. You can connect with him on his blog Goins, Writer or follow him on Twitter @jeffgoins. He is currently working on his first book. To read about his journey from blogger to book author, check out his eBook Every Writer’s Dream: How to Never Pitch Your Writing Again.

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Reader Comments (56)

  1. says

    I think you’re not talking about the core values as much as you’re talking about the core business model. Their core idea, which is the only idea they have, is to be the best at customer service. They do everything with that in mind.

    Core values are things like honesty and fairness. Zappos is all those things too, and they don’t hire someone who doesn’t have the same core values. It’s just a different thing than the business model. Jim Collins called it “Hedgehog Concept”, I call it core business model (note the difference to “core business”), but the idea is the same, “Understand what you can be the best in the world at, and then do everything in your power to become the best.”

    • says

      Core values is what Zappo’s calls them, and Hsieh has talked and written extensively on how that defined set of 10 core values are what create their unique value proposition — it’s why Zappos isn’t just another featureless ecommerce company.

      • says

        Sorry my mistake, I forgot “Deliver WOW through service” is their first core value, not just their business idea (I’ve read his book, but it’s been a while).

        It’s a shame they don’t deliver to Europe :/

        • says

          What I appreciate about Zappos β€” and what I hear you saying, Peter β€” is that their business model is built closely around their values. Which, as Sonia points out, is kind of rare these days. Sure, everyone has a list of values somewhere, but how many companies them built into the everyday happenings of their culture? That’s what makes Zappos remarkable: they actually live what they preach.

          • says

            Yeah, they really are an exception, a good one :) That’s why I didn’t remember WOWing was a value; it’s not only a value, but also the business model.

            Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness” was actually one of the reasons why I started a blog about company culture πŸ˜€

            Thanks Jeff for a great post :)

  2. says

    Hey Jeff, good to see you over here at Copyblogger. I think that Zappos is successful because they start with “Why.” Their mission and vision are clearly defined. Companies that go past the “what’ and “how,” and truly get to “why” will ultimately be successful. That’s why I’ll be in line at the next Apple roll-out. Great companies get it!

  3. says

    Great piece, Jeff. I highly recommend the Zappos Insights tour to anyone visiting Las Vegas. The atmosphere and culture there is tangibly different then most companies — even those with plenty of cool toys and perks — because Zappos is truly invested in its core values. Even more remarkable is how open the organization is to sharing its not-so-secret sauce with everyone.

    The stumbling block for most organizations is still communication — too many silos, not enough genuine team interaction, a hierarchy that doesn’t encourage constructive criticism and evolution, and not listening closely enough to customers. Taking steps to prevent or address those issues may sound touchy-feely, but Zappos proves how much of an impact that has on a company’s bottom line.

  4. Sherry Kirschenbaum says

    Funny that you wrote about Zappos just at the time I’ve made my first purchases. Easy, simple, quick delivery. I obviously will purchase there again, which is Zappos’s ultimate goal. As you said, it all goes back to the core values – customer service.

  5. says

    Thanks Jeff. Zappos is a great model for service excellence. They’ve really nailed it on the fulfillment end of customer care and that’s why they create a lot of raving fans, loyal advocates, or however you want to describe their growing tribe of customers.

    It seems their secret is how they uphold the humanity of people taking care of people, combined with all the efficiencies of online purchasing. That humanity part isn’t so easy to pull off in an online biz.

    • says

      Well said, Joe. This is the challenge of e-commerce: making human interactions valuable and authentic.

      You’re right. There’s something remarkable about restoring dignity to people in a world where nearly everything has become commoditized.

    • says

      That’s a good insight, Joe, the humanity of service combined with the efficiency of online purchasing. Thanks. :)

      As Jeff’s pointing out here, I think that is *highly* reproducible in our own businesses. And in fact, easier for a small biz than for a giant like Zappos.

    • says

      I agree with the others Joe, I also like the way you expressed this, “It seems their secret is how they uphold the humanity of people taking care of people, combined with all the efficiencies of online purchasing.” People caring for people creates a win/win situation. Everyone benefits and it creates a good feeling for all.

  6. says

    Zappos is definitely in touch with their “Secret Sauce” — their core values and their “Why” — but it’s interesting that when the company was originally founded it was more about providing the best selection. It’s just as important for solopreneurs and founders of very small businesses (that might some day grow up to be big) to figure this stuff out, too. Probably even more so, since we don’t have the marketing budgets of the big guys.

    • says

      I agree with you, Tea.

      The company was founded on a very simple principle: Since bricks-and-mortar overhead is a huge expense in selling shoes, how can we eliminate that? And if we do, what makes up for it? Answer: Amazing service.

      Simple as that. Zappos IS a great place, but let’s not put the atruistic service-above-all-else cart before the basic-business-principles horse.

      • says

        Brilliant insight, Andrew.

        And thanks for the thought, Tea. I guess the takeaway for me is you can’t expect excellent service to make up for a mediocre product. Seth Godin calls this putting a cherry on top of a meatball sundae β€” still doesn’t taste like ice cream.

  7. says

    Very inspiring! It’s good to focus on the good that companies are doing to give businesses, small and large models to follow. Instead of focusing on what is wrong, when you focus on what is right, others are inspired to follow.
    One of the things I find appealing is the way they empower their employees to make decisions that will best serve the customer. Usually the people on the front lines know what is in the best interest of the customer. Also any time you give people a sense of power, they feel valued and respected. Employees who feel respected tend to perform better and to be more loyal.
    The other qualities I appreciate is their sense of fun and humility, both to be emulated.
    Thanks for writing this post and sharing this with us.
    Keep up the good work!

    • says

      I like that, too, Sharon. It’s the oppose of what we come to understand about how corporate culture “should” work. It’s fun to see a company the size of Zappos doing it differently.

  8. says

    What impresses me the most about Zappos is how their business model, values and company culture are the result of their understanding their unique brand story and infusing it throughout the organization. It’s clear that they understand it’s not just the CEO’s ‘job’ or marketing’s ‘job’ to do this; rather it is everyone’s responsibility at Zappos and it’s remarkable and so refreshing to see it done in such a fun, genuine and heartfelt way with such passion and dedication. Unlike many companies where there are disconnects between brand story and delivery of the brand to the customer, Zappos knows that every customer touch point matters. In selling shoes they also build indestructible bonds with their customers and employees

  9. says

    Email just received from Boden:
    “We’re sorry you didn’t get along with these particular purchases, but while we have your ear, why don’t you pop back and take advantage of our no quibbles return policy with something else from the Boden collection. In case you haven’t noticed, your account has $98.00 credit available that you can use toward your next order.”
    Even their return notices are fun. I may just pop back to spend that credit.

  10. Izabel says

    Great article and I like the fact that they are fun and service orientated. There is only one problem with Zappos; they are overpriced on most of their products. In this economy, people are not as willing to pay for customer service like in the past. IMHO

    • says

      Izabel, I have to agree with you when you say people are not willing to pay for customer service like in the old days. This has been my experience. Even my own tight list from a decade ago is shopping for the best deal and the customer service that used to be golden for us in the past is not so strong anymore. The value driven society is obsessed with the best deal.

      • says

        Hmmm… I actually see the opposite. Since many markets are now over-saturated, it seems that those which shine brightest are the ones committed to excellent service.

  11. says

    I was listening to Tony Hsieh’s “delivering happiness” audiobook recently. While he did build a great company based around service, not may businesses will probably never survive the kind of risks and growth strategies he took to get where Zappos is today.

  12. says

    Hi Jeff – WOW! Great minds think alike! I literally just sent an article to our proofreader on a post for our company blog, pretty much covering this exact same topic, lol. Will have our own story and flare of course.

    We actually developed a customer service training course based on this book and we require ALL of our employees here at PostcardMania to do the “Delivering Happiness Course” as part of their company training line-up. Since implementing this new course and having our employees apply the tools they learn from the data in this book – we’ve seen a significant increase in customer retention, customer referrals, re-orders and larger orders.

    Great post! Would love to share our Zappos article with you!

  13. says

    Great article!! Thanks for sharing. Zappo seems a great place to work. They must be good at selecting the right people for the job. I think this is the key to grow and maintain such a concept, isn’t easy to find the right people who have real “Customer Service” passion.

  14. says

    Hi Jeff,

    I love this message.

    What few realize is that we feel passion and purpose on a subconscious level. Zappos’ passion and purpose programs us to respond. The feelings behind their acts condition us to respond. Weird, amazing, and infinitely powerful. The energy behind the acts makes the company irresistible to people who want to buy what the company has to offer.

    Find passion and purpose by working on your mental tools. Every day. Few take time to engage in personal development. If you though, you find customers or team members lining up with less physical effort. You did the mental clearing and developed the passion which is instantly felt by people who resonate with your passion. Then you begin to build a rabid fan base masquerading as your customer base, and these folks advertise you word of mouth, a most powerful form of marketing.

    As for not obeying too many rules, absolutely luv that one. As long as you keep communicative channels open you are good to go. You can be nimble, because everybody is moving forward with the nimble, flexible frame of mind….because everybody is kept in the loop. When everybody is not kept in the loop, the issues arise. When they are, it’s all good, and you can begin doing amazing, groundbreaking things because everybody can work without someone breathing down their neck…whether it’s a person or a rule book.

    Cool analogy with the Soviets too. I just left Laos yesterday after a short holiday. Now I am in Thailand. The energy behind a Communist regime like Laos and a Western-type government like Thailand is night and day. You can see it in the people’s faces, the happiness, or lack thereof. Many Laos are so kind, but you can see they are repressed, they are hurting, because the regime, the rules, the difficulties encountered when they try to grow. I found out that it costs over $15 for a Laos to buy a passport, and it would take many citizens at least 2-3 months to make that money. Tough. Restrictive, and it stifles so much growth in a nation with so much potential.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Jeff.


  15. says

    These are essential points for the web startup. Never really thought Zappos could teach me a thing or two but I guess they did! It takes a certain comprehensiveness to be able to get started and also to be more customer oriented.

  16. says

    Great post I was just listening to Timothy Ferriss’s 4 Hour Work Week the other day and he spends a bit of time on empowering your employs to make decisions and take action. Here is another example of that model popping up.
    I just stumble on to your site and I’ll be book marking it.
    Thanks for the article these are principles that can serve any business.

  17. says

    G’Day Jeff,
    I’ve run a business for over 30 years. It’s not a marketing business and I claim no particular expertise in marketing. But if I’ve learnt one thing in those 30+ years it’s this.

    Marketing isn’t everything; but everything is marketing.
    Make sure you have fun

  18. says


    What a remarkably succinct and helpful blog post! Thank you so much!

    My customers are the center of my business too, but reading your post helped me think of four ways I can connect with them even more.

    1) make my mission statement more succinct and customer-focused.
    2) give my wonderful customer service rep, Erica, more free reign to be herself and say what she wants in the customer service emails.
    3) randomly answer customer service emails myself, or add a little note to some of hers.
    4) make sure to chime in for every unhappy customer or refund request, so the customer feels cared for and extra-important.
    And I just thought of a fifth one. 5) send a follow-up note to buyers a week after the purchase to check up on them and make sure they’re using and enjoying it.

    I am going to test out these new ideas and see I can get even more excitement, connection, and passion going with my customers, so that they know I love them as much as they love me!

  19. TWE says

    I’ll throw in my 2 cents since I can relate to the concepts Zappos uses to be successful. I started my career doing phone tech support back in ’96 and at one point I ended up working for HP when they first put their Pavilion home pcs out on the market. The first thing they did was give us extensive, hands on training. We built those pcs from the ground up so we could support them on the phone. Then when we got on the phones we had no time limits and there were working versions of all models throughout the floor so if you needed to, you could walk over to the exact model the customer on the phone had and walk them through software or see if you could produce the same error, etc. Then there was a lap you could use with all the models in various stages of disassemble so you could go in and see what model had what in it and where. So if you needed to have the customer remove something you could tell them exactly how. If a pc was just problematic (funny that those things were pure junk when they first came out but now… I even own one and it’s awesome), they would buy it back from the customer.

    The bottom line is 12+ years later and I have never had such an empowering job ever again in life. We were all happy working there and couldn’t wait to get to work. We were able to HELP people. That situation changed over a year later when they went to call time restrictions and stopped wanting to stand behind their junk products. I mean if you’re selling junk, at least have the decency to take responsibility for it. At any rate, I was completely spoiled by that situation was was quite disappointed with nearly every job thereafter because they all seem to want to keep me from helping the customer.

    It’s hard to do less when you’ve already seen the benefits and power of supporting your product or business in the truest since.

  20. Susan says

    Have had excellent interaction with Zappos service, but, believe me, they need you! Their blog/newsletter/chat reeks. They never answer a question. The subject line would be enticing … oh yeah, I want to know about that! but I never heard from an expert and by expert, even a fashionista would suffice. I had a hard time getting the emails to stop.

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