Zappos exec outlines the ‘triangle of accountability’ that guides its customer service approach

Rob Siefker discusses quirky hiring questions, the thinking behind its "no call time" policy and goals around speed and responsiveness

To Rob Siefker, customer feedback doesn’t get much better than this:

“Funny, a person that I have never met — and probably never will — touched my life in a lasting way.”

The quote came near the end of the keynote session at the Stella Summit LevelUp virtual event Tuesday, where the senior director of customer service at online shoe retailer Zappos was talking about how his organization tries to deliver “Wow” experiences through its agents.

Rob Siefker Zappos
Rob Siefker, Sr. Director Customer Service, Zappos

Siefker, who joined the organization in 2004, has helped Zappos expand its customer service department to a team of more than 600 based in Las Vegas. His career journey has been one where he was expected to last little more than a few weeks to one where the culture has evolved considerably.

“(Originally) we were kind of just a startup that had an energy — ‘Yeah, this is fun!’ — but it wasn’t really focused,” he said. “It really became apparent when we moved to Las Vegas. We were hiring all fo these people and our culture was becoming what other people wanted it to be.”

The initial effort to codify Zappos’ core values went a tad overboard, though. There were a mixture of 37 different attributes that defined ideal employe behaviour that were announced to the staff on Valentine’s Day in 2006. They’re since been winnowed down to 10.

Even then, some of Zappos’ core values might raise eyebrows among other CX leaders, such as “create fun and a little weirdness.” This manifests itself in the company’s hiring process, where Siefker said candidates might be asked to name the “theme music” they would choose for when they walk into a room.

“The goal behind asking (those) questions that bring out some quirkiness is not about the answer,” he said. “The point with those things is, are the individuals interested in participating in something that’s a little goofy, a little fun, a little different?”

Assuming the answer is “Yes,” Zappos ensures that customers are at the centre of its culture by requiring all hires — as part of a four-week training program — to learn how to answer customer service calls. This training is often put to use during peak periods like the holidays, whether it’s a member of the finance team or someone in legal, he said.

“We don’t separate those groups out. We have everybody do those things together,” he said. “It helps them build relationships across the organization, and sort of evens the playing field.”

Zappos has also become known for offering to pay people to quit if they decide they aren’t the right fit, which is also offered during the training process. Then there are its policies that are more specific to customer service that also go against the grain, such as an avoidance of specific call times.

Agents go above and beyond by sending thank-you cards as well as cookies and flowers. Zappos budgets for these kinds of extras, which might come when a customer is celebrating the birth of a child or a wedding. 

“The expense is not that high, and the return on it is a lot of emotional goodwill,” he said. “It creates a story of our brand and humanizes the relationship. We’re not an arms-length transactional company.”

Most critically, however, Siefker said Zappos has developed a “triangle of accountability,” which is based on the idea that it needs to prioritize internal stakeholders as much as those buying online.

This could include those in marketing who are planning a new product launch, or those responsible for optimizing its e-commerce engine. In each case, a contract is formed with that specifies what they will be delivering in terms of a customer experience and what they will need. This determines how much money Zappos allocates to the team in question.

“We want to make sure we have this incredibly customer-focused mindset,” he said. “It makes the budgeting a little less top-down and little more connected.”

The end result is that Zappos is able to set goals that focus on areas of undoable importance to a digital-first brand, like speed. That means than four hours to answer a customer e-mail (ideally less than two) and calls answered in less than 20 seconds.

“Responding quickly is something all customers value. They don’t want to wait on hold,” he said.

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