Delivering a personalized customer experience the Zappos Way – Interview with Alex Genov of Zappos


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Today’s interview is with Alex Genov, Head of Customer Research for I spoke to Alex when I was in Las Vegas in June and talked to him about Zappos, personalization, what many folks are getting wrong, what Zappos has learnt with their personalization efforts and where they are headed.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – Customer engagement, AI and GDPR Article 22 – Interview with Jeff Nicholson of Pega – and is number 273 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, providing valuable insights, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to both their customers and their employees.

Here’s the highlights of my interview with Alex:

  • Alex and his team works closely and collaboratively with the big data team at Zappos, where they, through their research, provide insights into how people think and what they feel.
  • Alex is very interested in emotions, studying them, understanding how they get generated and how they can be measured in a valid way.
  • That forms the foundation of their approach to personalization.
  • Zappos describes itself as a customer service company that happens to sell shoes….’
  • This originates from Tony Hsieh and focuses on their ‘Why’, a la Simon Sinek.
  • Therefore, providing great and personalised customer service is part of their DNA.
  • They refer to their customer service folks as their Customer Loyalty Team. That tells you everything you need to know about what their purpose is.
  • Their main requirement is to create an emotional connection with their customers.
  • However, that means if someone is in a rush they do not indulge in chit chat but they are trained to be sensitive to the customers requirements. That’s personalization the right way.
  • They capture information about the conversations they are having with customers with the aim of carrying it forward to the next phone call. That is one of the things they are working towards in terms of personalization.
  • Ultimately, when they get customers on the phone, they want to be able to route customers to the member of the loyalty team that they last spoke to.
  • But, the majority of their customers don’t speak to them on the phone but rather only transact via their website and that is where they are focusing much of their effort to be able to create a personalised digital experience that matches the experience a customer would get on the phone.
  • That means they design their site to serve their customers.
  • The challenge with many websites is that they focus on the how (the technology) first and not on the what (the experience they want to create).
  • Many personalisation efforts use technology to provide best guess recommendations.
  • There are problems with this type of approach – the account may be shared, it takes no account of the mindset of the customer when they are looking at the website and it cannot ascertain the reason (context) behind the purchase.
  • Achieving that level of understanding……that is personalization.
  • Assumptions are a big danger.
  • You cannot average people.
  • Therefore, if you don’t know then ask.
  • Zappos are at the early stages of the personalisation efforts.
  • They are developing the technology and the algorithms to deliver the experience they want.
  • Data privacy and security is their number one priority. Like it is for Amazon. It’s table stakes.
  • The challenge with personalisation is that different customers feel very differently about sharing their data and personalisation will mean different things to different people.
  • The imperative is that before that we assume that you want personalization and curation, we have to find out (by asking you) what you think is interesting.
  • Views on personalisation and data security exist on a scale from closed through to conditional through to open.
  • Our message is always: You can ask for information from customers but, if you do, then right away give them something back that is of value to them.
  • As a result, they are taking a more dialogue led approach to personalisation rather than a ‘best guess’ led approach.
  • That sort of approach may work for some products that don’t ‘represent’ you as a customer i.e. a toaster but works less well for highly personal items like clothes and shoes. Hence, their approach.
  • That also prevents them from being seen as creepy.
  • It’s all about trust and building up a relationship.
  • Jeff Bezos said that without data security and privacy we have nothing.
  • Good companies have good intent and have good practices.
  • However, for many companies their product is the data.
  • Zappos’ plans to further their personalisation efforts include working closely with their data scientists, using research and insights, asking for permission to establish context and designing their interface so that it is enabled for dialogue.
  • Context can be established by asking simple questions like are you shopping for yourself or shopping for others, what gender are you, what size of shoe do you wear..?
  • Doing so will allow them to narrow down the choices that they present.
  • Even though Zappos has a generous returns policy, they know that it’s still not convenient…to return shoes.
  • Therefore, they use data to help them understand what has happened in the past, what sizes have fit before to minimise the chance that you will have to return shoes.
  • Beyond that, however, you can start to ask questions about the occasion, how a customer wants the shoes to make them feel…the emotional reason behind buying the shoes. That’s where it gets special.
  • How can we create or design the interface for an experience.
  • They conduct qualitative research home visits to better understand their customers and the emotional part of their decision-making. One customer said that he wanted to change his wardrobe as he was approaching the next stage of his life and career. Meanwhile, one lady wanted to replenish her wardrobe as she had just had a baby. Another wanted to make changes to her wardrobe not because of how she felt but how the clothes and shoes she was going to buy would make her feel.
  • They are designing an interface where they will use technology to help deliver that sort of dialogue.
  • Alex believes that technology can do anything.
  • But, the problem generally comes when you start with the algorithm and then try to fit the experience to it.
  • Start with the ideal experience and then write code to match that.
  • Emulate the personal experience with technology.
  • This can be done. It’s just that many efforts, at this point, are not focused on that.
  • Alex’s advice to people wanting to deliver a more personalised experience:
    • Understand your customers as people and then work with the technology side.
  • Roberto Verganti, an Italian design professor, whom Alex met when he was at Intuit told him that if you really want to innovate then forget about users.
  • His whole point was that users are not the people. A user clicks and converts but they are not the person. Find out who is the person behind the behaviour. That’s where psychology and research comes in.
  • If you see people as just a user or just a buyer then you don’t see the whole person and, as a result, you don’t see the whole opportunity.

About Alex

Alex GenovAlex Genov is Head of Customer Research at, Inc. Alex is an experienced customer research professional who applies his Experimental Social Psychology background and his passion for research, design, and innovation to solving important customer and business problems. His professional goal is to help teams create remarkable products and services which make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable.

Currently Alex is leading Customer Research for the Zappos Family of Companies. In previous positions, he was responsible for research and usability of the products and services for companies like TurboTax (Intuit), State Farm Insurance, and the Active Network. He has over 15 years of relevant experience – 5 years of academic research and over 10 years of customer research in the software industry.

Alex received his PhD in Experimental Social Psychology from Clark University. His areas of research include: defining and measuring emotions, individual differences, usability, and consumer segmentation.

Go buy some shoes from, say Hi to them, the folks at Zappos Insights and Alex himself on Twitter @Zappos, @ZapposInsights and @AgenovZappos and, finally, do connect with Alex on LinkedIn here.



Thanks to Pixabay for the image.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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