Zappos: Customer experience, employee experience, culture and holocracy


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Today’s interview is with Rob Siefker, Senior Director of Customer Service Operations at and one of the speakers at Zappos Insights, a team within the Zappos Family of Companies that was created simply to help share the Zappos Culture with the world and to inspire positive change in the workplace. Rob joins me to talk about the School of Wow at Zappos Insight, what Wow service means to them, employee experience and holocracy.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – Making customer interactions more human by using analytics, decisioning and artificial intelligence – Interview with Rob Walker of Pega – and is number 185 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to their customers.

Here’s the highlights of my interview with Rob:

  • Whilst Rob’s main role is within the call centre at Zappos, he gets involved in many initiatives that help build and sustain the culture at Zappos, help with service and represent the company externally .
  • If you were to distil Zappos’ secret to success to its essence, Rob believes that it starts with their people and culture.
  • They hire people that fit well within their culture and have the right sort of personality for the type of company that they are.
  • They create as positive an environment as they can to help deal with the ups and downs that any company goes through.
  • And, they empower people to do the right thing.
  • These are not new insights but much of the difference between success and failure can be attributed to organisational and leadership commitment to these things and how they execute them.
  • Rob believes that whilst Zappos aren’t perfect they do pay a lot of attention to the details.
  • One of the areas that they pay a lot attention to is the onboarding process for new employees. Rob says that they are pretty ‘intense’ about it but in a good and fun way. However, it does lay a good foundation for their employees.
  • Not everyone is a fit for Zappos and they do their best to find that out before they hire them. However, they don’t always get it right.
  • So, when they or the employee realise that there isn’t a match they do their best to part ways as quickly as possible.
  • They also still have their ‘offer’ in place where offer to pay new employees $2000 to quit soon after they start. If employees stay then they and the company are making a mutual commitment to each other.
  • Whilst there is a School of Wow within Zappos Insights, Rob says that defining what Wow is is hard.
  • However, to help he suggests thinking about those moments in day to day life when you are compelled to say ‘wow’. It’s a sense of awe. It’s, generally, a positive thing. It’s a situation that evokes an emotional response that is positive, inspiring and one that we connect with.
  • However, Wow thinking should not only apply to things we do for customers but should also apply to things we do for each other as employees and team members.
  • To bring this to life, Rob tells a story about an employee at Zappos that recently had been going through a tough time following the death of her mother. A friend forwarded her a post on Facebook from a customer whose husband had also recently passed away.
    • That lady had called up Zappos as she wanted to return some shoes that she had bought for her husband and he hadn’t had the opportunity to wear. The Zappos employee that took the call immediately refunded her and told her not to bother returning the shoes as she had plenty of other, more important things to do.
    • The customer had then written a long post on Facebook lauding the compassion shown by the Zappos employee and talking about the ‘business’ side of death, where when someone dies you have to call all sorts of companies. Now, while everyone will express their condolences and say that they are sorry for your loss that is often more about what they have to say and tends to be devoid of meaning and compassion. However, the Zappos employee left a completely different impression through their tone, their words and their actions.
  • When it comes to looking at employee experience in isolation that’s not something that Zappos does but rather they look at things more holistically.
  • At Zappos, the employee experience will be as good or as great as employees want to make it as they have the ability to impact their environment and change the way that Zapoos do things.
  • It’s not up to one person or group to make the employee experience great. It’s up to all of us.
  • However, once we do that well it just translates into our ability to deliver great customer service.
  • The implementation of holocracy makes a little bit of that participation more explicit in that it is now required to help out in certain ways and more explicit in terms of how to do it. Previously, not everyone had the tools, mindset or understanding of how to impact the business.
  • Holocracy provides a different set of tools for people to participate.
  • However, it’s implementation has proved to be both a challenging learning curve as well as a powerful tool.
  • Holcracy is a purpose drive, team-oriented way of governing work and making implicit things like accountability and authority on decision-making explicit through a governance process.
  • Instead of being based on titles, like in traditional organisational structures, all the different roles are broken out into very defined roles, purpose and accountabilities and they are grouped together based on the type of work.
  • For example, in their old organisational structure Rob would be the Senior Director of the customer loyalty team (and still is when speaking at an external event). But, as every professional knows your title does not dictate or cover everything that you do so Rob now has a number of roles that are explicitly called out and those are the roles that he energises and he has the authority to do work within.
  • Doing that gives each person and the team clear sight of what each person is responsible for and it stops people making assumptions about who’s responsible for something or not.
  • As part of the toolkit there is also a process for clarifying situations where it is not clear who is responsible for something if it wasn’t getting done and it’s important.
  • In many ways it’s no different to operating in any other organisational structure it’s just that roles and responsibilities are much clearer.
  • Despite the growing pains that come with moving to a new way of working, it does encourage people to work across teams and functions and encourages cooperation and collaboration to get things done.
  • Many people think that holocracy implies a flat structure and no hierarchy but, in fact, there is an argument to say that there is more structure and more hierarchy in holocracy.
  • But, people at Zappos are more clear in their new system than they were in what they used to have.
  • Many leaders when the new system was implemented felt devalued or not important. But, Rob feels that the new system is liberating, fun and logically makes a lot of sense.
  • He also feels that he has been busier, in a good way, than he has ever been before.
  • Last year Zappos made a big announcement about the move to holocracy declaring that people had the option to be on board or not and if they decided that it wasn’t for them they would be paid to leave. In Rob’s area, the call centre, they lost a number of their management team as they felt that the new system wasn’t a good fit for them so they moved on. Also, some people left because they had been at Zappos for a long time and it was a good time to leave and do something else butaided by a financial incentive package.
  • With hindsight, they would, of course, have done many things differently in their implementation of holocracy. But, would they have learned the same lessons?
  • They then wouldn’t have the opportunity to share those lessons with others that want to change they that they work.
  • So, there is always a silver lining to all of the challenges that they have faced.
  • They have still not fully reaped the benefits of this organisational change but the development and change culturally, in the areas where holocracy has been implemented and it has gone well, has been pretty awesome.
  • Rob feels that employees have changed in a really good way as have the relations between employees. They are now more honest in a good and a challenging way.
  • However, they still have some way to go way but they feel that they are turning the corner on the change and more and more benefits are starting to appear.
  • When it comes to delivering your own version of Wow service/experience, Rob suggest that organisations should think about the following:
    • What is the current make-up of your team and how can that team deliver on what you expect and what you want to create for your customers?
    • If the team needs to change then you need to figure out a way of making that happen.
    • Being obsessive about the hiring and onboarding of new employees.
    • Look at your training and how much power you give to your employees to make the right decision for customers.
    • If there is a limitation on what your employees can do then you have to question whether or not that really makes sense for you.
    • Systematically look at whether you are truly trying to make the experience for your customers easy or do you have unintended hoops that they have to go through to be a customer.
    • Generate a strong culture whatever that means for you. Create something that you are proud of.
  • If you need help with creating your own stand out service experience then check out how the team at Zappos Insights could help.

About Rob (taken from his Zappo’s Insights bio)

Rob SiefkerRob joined in January of 2004 and is the Director of the Customer Loyalty Team. He has spent his entire career with Zappos providing the very best service for both customers and employees. Starting his career with the company as a temporary call center employee he has helped the team grow from 30 to 500 employees.

Rob is a strong ambassador and promoter of the Zappos brand and is commitment to developing a world class culture. He has previously represented Zappos by speaking at conferences for IQPC, Frost & Sullivan, and Marcus Evans. He’s also been a guest speaker at Purdue University’s Center for Customer Driven Quality.

Rob grew up in Denver, Colorado and later earned a BA in History from Santa Clara University in 2002.

Check out the great work that the team at Zappos Insights do at, say Hi to them on Twitter @ZapposInsights and connect with Rob on LinkedIn here.

Photo Credit: Jeff_Terrell via Compfight cc

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.


  1. A key takeaway here is that, after over two years of implementation, the jury still seems to be undecided on the success of holacracy as an enterprise concept. When the Director of Customer Loyalty says, in effect, “they still have some way to go way but they feel that they are turning the corner on the change and more and more benefits are starting to appear.”, that is enough to represent pause. A recent extended HBR article separated holacracy reality from holoacracy hype (


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