Much has been written about Zappos and their founder Tony Hsieh as his company is recognized as a leader in customer-centric, employee-centric, culture-based management. But what does all of that really mean, and most importantly, does Zappos operate the way Tony describes it in his best-selling management book, Delivering Happiness?

I first visited Zappos in April 2010 and found the experience exhilarating from a management perspective. At the time, CliIntel was looking for new office space and an effective way to use that space. I took many ideas from Zappos; multiple small conference rooms, brightly colored walls and open “funky” cube group work environments.

My company operates from a set of nine values; Judgment, Curiosity, Passion, Communication, Innovation, Honesty, Impact, Courage, and Selflessness. Many people believe that nine is just too many, and I was pleased and felt vindicated to see that Zappos had 10! During my first visit, the company was in the midst of being assimilated by Amazon.com as they had been acquired for over $1B. At the time the very animated, heavily tattooed and pierced tour guide talked about how a condition of the deal was that Amazon would leave the Zappos culture alone, bringing only their logistical prowess to bear; Zappos would be allowed to retain its “weirdness” and its unique employee/customer-centric philosophy. Having been through many mergers and acquisitions in my career, I was skeptical, to say the least.

In April 2013, I returned from my second visit to Zappos and am pleased to report that after 2 years, Amazon.com has indeed left the Zappos culture intact. In fact, Amazon.com and the gigantic war chest of money that came along with it enabled Tony Hsieh and his team to extend their customer/employee-centric philosophies in several meaningful ways. The commitment to new hire training during my first visit was along the lines of two weeks; currently new employees spend over four weeks in training – not on-the-job training but in-classroom. This training not only involves the technology aspects, but centers on their customer service philosophy and most importantly: the culture. Another unique feature of the company that remained intact is that new hires are offered the equivalent of approximately one month’s salary to leave after two weeks of training. This is not a punitive or PIP offer, it’s an open offer every employee who is hired regardless of where they are on the performance scale in the first couple of weeks. This commitment helps ensure employee engagement and reduces employee turnover to levels unheard of in the call center space, which is essentially the core of Zappos’ business structure.

Even more profound than during my first visit, it was clear that every employee, regardless of their level, was able to repeat, and most importantly connect, with the company’s 10 values in their daily work – everything from customer service to expense reporting. The empowerment the employees exuded and the obvious connection to the company’s values was simply astonishing. The tour provided me not only with proof that the ideas in Tony’s book were being carried out at Zappos, but more importantly, gave me a profound sense that the embodiment of values in a company have a powerful impact on culture.

Newly minted ideas were being executed with typical “Zappos flair” and weirdness. One idea was a professional development program that gave employees access to a personal goals coach, allowing them to take ownership of a component of the performance appraisal system by making them responsible for the achievement of 30-day goals. The weirdness was apparent when walking through a stairwell connecting the first and second floors of the Henderson, Nevada facility where employees were invited and encouraged to write on the walls with markers. The weirdness soon turned into empowerment when I read some of the thoughts people shared on the walls about their goals and the date they achieved them, and by signing their names, released all anonymity. In many cases, these were very personal achievements – which ranged from weight loss to education and empowerment through exiting dangerous domestic situations.

I highly encourage you to visit www.zapposinsights.com and arrange for a tour to see this magic for yourself. They’ll schedule the one hour tour and arrange for a shuttle to pick you up at your Las Vegas hotel, feed you while you’re on the tour and take you back to your hotel – all free of charge. The tour really begins when you get in the shuttle, since it’s driven by a team member who is more than happy to answer questions and demonstrate their company values from the moment they meet you. If you’re staying on the Las Vegas strip it’s about a 2 ½ hour investment and if you’re a business person open to a little weirdness and new ideas, it could change your life – and the way you do business.

Richard Batenburg, Jr., President and CEO

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