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The cult and culture of Zappos

Company takes happiness seriously

In the Zappos universe, managers are monkeys, culture is king, customers are fans, and work is fun.

And, for the record, Zappos is a real, profitable company. It is an online reseller of shoes, clothing and accessories including watches, handbags and eyewear, and it rang up $1 billion in gross sales last year.

Businesses of all stripes are paying attention to its customer-centric and employee-friendly approach to business — which seems to run counter to the prevailing economic currents, as cutting costs and services is all the rage these days.

A culture at the core

"You can’t have happy employees without having a culture that employees want to grow and develop," said Alfred Lin, Zappos chief operating officer and chief financial officer. And happy employees have a lot to do with happy customers, he noted.

Lin, who will deliver a keynote address at the Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco in August, said a positive company culture can build a brand that is both believable and marketable.

"We have a belief that brand and culture are two sides of the same coin," he said.

Companies that try to manufacture a brand that is out of synch with the actual culture are really in a state of disconnect, particularly in this age of Internet transparency, Lin said.

Decades ago, a few people working on behalf of a big company would "decide what the brand was, buy lots of advertising, and project a brand image," whether or not it was a true reflection of the company’s culture.

These days, "People will talk about you on the Internet. If you’re a service provider … you can’t really hide. Hiding doesn’t really work in the Internet space.

"If people can see inside the company, and see what the company is all about — that ultimately is what the brand is, not what you say it is."

It’s important to realize that every company has a culture, and it’s important to constantly refine it, Lin said — Zappos has an annual "Culture Book" that is based on input from employees.

Companies get it wrong when they put culture and the relationship with employees on the backburner, he said.

Serving up customer service

While customer service is a cornerstone for Zappos (the name derives from "zapatos," the Spanish word for shoes), which has a headquarters in Henderson, Nev., Lin said the real estate industry in some cases falls short here.

"Most of the people I have dealt with in real estate are generally good people and well-meaning," he said, though they are "not generally the most customer service-oriented people unless there is a sale about to go through."

A page at the Zappos Web site proclaims, "Customer service is everything. In fact, it’s the entire company." It sounds like a catchy slogan, but Lin insists it runs much deeper than that.

Another page at the site describes the Zappos return policy: a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee, with the ability to return items up to 365 days from the purchase date — postage paid by the company (with some exclusions). The company’s call center, complete with live human beings, and warehouse operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And Zappos has a reputation for surprising buyers with free shipping upgrades.

"With many call centers you call in and you feel like you’re being read a script — not being treated as a human being," Lin said. Zappos works to "establish a relationship first" — "I think a lot of very successful brokers in real estate really understand that."

New employees are offered $2,000 to quit in the early stages of their employment — it’s a sort of test see if they’re a good fit for the company and vice versa. …CONTINUED