by Adam Morgan

If you interview at Zappo’s, one of the questions they ask you in the interview itself is how weird you are. Weirdness is a key part of one of their core ten values, and so not unnaturally they want to make sure each employee fits their values.

And, in reality, the question is more interesting than this. Because they don’t ask you that question as an open-ended one – they are more precise: they hand you a scale of 1-10, and ask you to mark on that scale how weird you are, and hand it back again.

Hmm. So what is our reaction to this? I suggest it is probably one or all of the following:

  • Crazy guys! Crazy company! Only in Las Vegas, eh?!
  • What on earth would I say in that situation? I wonder what they are looking for? A 7? Or maybe a 10? Weirdness to the max?
  • What kind of fruitcake puts the word ‘Weird’ in their values in the first place? How big are they ever going to get with a set of values like that, for heaven’s sake?
  • God only knows what would happen to the person who suggested that kind of thing in my company – very questionable career move.

But when Mark went to interview Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappo’s in Vegas last month, he was very open about why they do it, and what they are looking for.

So first of all, he said, you have to understand that we are primarily a customer service company that happens to be in apparel: it is customer service that we are focused on excellence in. And we believe that at the core of ‘wow’ in customer service is recruiting the right kind of people, helping them live our values, and otherwise letting them be themselves. So, for instance, he said, we don’t believe in scripts – we want our people to really come across as genuine people. And that means you won’t always have the same kind of service experience when you call Zappo’s : the first person you talk to might be upbeat and funny, but the second might not naturally be like that – however, they might hear a dog barking in the background, and build a relationship with you as a fellow pet lover.

So what we are looking for when we ask them how weird they are, he says, is not so much the actual score. It is whether they try to double guess what we are looking for, or are confident in their own individuality. Because that is what we need them to be when they are on the line with customers.

And that genuineness of customer service is one of the key factors that gives Zappo’s a reputation as the leader in internet (and retailing) customer service in the world, a one billion dollar acquisition by Amazon, and an NPS figure in the nineties.

So let’s just revisit some of those reactions we had. First, there is a method in the madness, and it is a method whose relevance extends way beyond Vegas – which of us would not want a better customer service experience more often? Second, satisfaction for the worker and for the customer alike lies in the former being the genuine and individual human being that they really are, rather than a scripted drone. Third, this kind of thinking is the reason that they succeed in online retail without ever discounting, and a key part of the reason that Amazon bought them – they are going to be very big indeed. And fourth, perhaps in our own companies we ought to look at the same kind of rigorous thinking and filters to make sure we cast the right people for the kind of excellence we want to deliver.

Two last things about customer service at Zappo’s. The first is that while most of us have strict ‘productivity’ guidelines to try to ensure our customer service does not spend too long on the phone with customers, Zappo’s have a competition to see who can keep a customer happily engaged on the phone the longest. The current record stands at just over six hours. The second is that employees are given free rein to offer money or gifts to customers to recompense them for problems, and it is genuinely discretionary, and genuinely encouraged. And they recognise that encouragement means taking away the fear of going too far. ‘If someone gave a customer a $1000 rebate for a $30 pair of shoes’, Tony Hsieh will tell you, ’ we would regard that not as a fire-able offence, but an opportunity for training.’

How weird is that?

One billion dollars weird, perhaps.

Adam Morgan is the founder of eatbigfish

Want more Zappos? Go to THE CHALLENGER PROJECT to read about Mark’s trip to Zappo’s HQ and watch a clip of our interview with Tony Hsieh.