Zappos Service is for Zappos, not You


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We’ve all heard the stories of famously customer focused organisations where staff have gone wildly above and beyond customer expectations to create raving fans.

At Zappos, one famous (albeit perhaps apocryphal) tale is the story of a customer service person having pizza delivered to customers who were sitting online talking to their contact center.

Another is the Nordstrom’s employee, who provided a refund for a set of car snow chains when the company didn’t even sell snow chains.

Immortalised in books and customer service meetings these stories are legendary but should you be trying for this level of service?

Probably not.

Customers don’t really want it

If you’re looking at it in customer satisfaction (or Net Promoter) terms, it doesn’t really pay off.

It’s not the level of service that is important in a business but the level of service relative to expectations.

This is the reason why a McDonalds franchise and a top flight restaurant can both score 10s in their customer surveys; completely different experience, completely different expectations, same high score.

Customers want you to deliver exactly what you say you’ll deliver and maybe just a little bit better. Typically, there’s no expectation that you will substantially over deliver on what you’ve promised.

We see this time and time again in our analysis of customer feedback. Almost without fail, when we analyse what drives customer loyalty, “do what you say you will do” ranks in the top three.

Notice it is not “do more than you say you will do.”

Besides, just deliver what you promise and you’ll already be ahead of many of your competitors.

You Inflate Customer Expectations.

Speaking of expectations, remember, all that over-delivery drives them up.

If you massively over deliver to a customer this time, then it will lift expectations next time, for a never ending spiral of costs.

I’m sure you have bought that special someone an extravagant gift and know how “over delivery” this time sets you up for next time. The next gift giving occasion is so much harder, on both sides.

It’s Impossible to do Consistently

Perhaps the most problematic element of stellar over delivery is consistency. In practice, it is impossible to put this type of customer service into any kind of process or training.

You just can’t write, coach or teach any consistent structures or design approval limits that will have a front line person consistently delivering pizza to customers while on hold.

Actually, I think it’s quite selfish for superiors and managers to exhort their staff to provide unspecified WOW customer service.

It’s easy for managers to flash up a PowerPoint slide at the annual planning meeting or in the new employee induction session. But it has no real definition and no way for an employee to reliably deliver.

If you can’t reliably deliver a service attribute, across all employees, it’s not particularly useful.

Finally, Those Stories Aren’t Even Directed At You!

But here is the real reason that Zappos service is not for you: you’re not the audience for those out of the park service stories and neither is your company.

The audience is not even Zappos or Nordstrom’s customers.

The actual audience for these tales of customer service daring do are the staff of Zappos and Nordstrom.

These companies have explicitly chosen to compete on exceptional customer service. Having made such a decision they need a way to drive that culture deep into their business.

One of the ways they do that is by telling stories; tales of magnificent customer service with customer facing staff as the heroes.

Management encourage these stories and employees understand that great feats of customer service are highly valued by the organisation. They become the role models to which everyone aspires.

These stories are very important for employees, but only Zappos employees not yours.

Here’s The Service You Should Deliver

Unless your organisation has decided to compete on outstanding customer service, Zappos like customer service is not for you.

It is unlikely to be supported by senior management. They will try to write rule books on what is and is not acceptable, which, of course, totally defeats the idea.

My suggestion, and the way organisations like Amazon deliver, is to deliver just a little bit better than what you said you’d deliver for the customer.

I know when I go online to Amazon and purchase something, I’ll get exactly what I asked for.

I’ll probably get it a day or two before they say they’re going to deliver it, my deliveries are to Australia so overnight is not an option. But I’m essentially getting exactly what I want, when I asked for it, and how I’ve had my expectations set.

If you’re looking to deliver good service, that’s a great start: do what you say you will do.

It will put you ahead of many organisations and you don’t even have to buy pizza for everyone.

Image credit: Flikr

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. This post provides a dose of real-world perspective and advice for all b2b and b2c organizations. Companies won’t go too far wrong if they understand customer expectations, a surrogate term for the importance associated with elements of value delivery, and offer products and services relative to that understanding (perhaps with a dash of ‘and then some’ thinking in processes and behavior). Further, doing this provides more role clarity, engagement, and ambassadorship for employees.

    Vernon Hill, who founded Commerce Bank in the U.S. (merged into TD Bank since 2007), and now Republic Bank in the U.S. and Metro Bank in the U.K., believes in providing the basics per customer expectations – and then going about 10% to 20% better to outflank competitors:

  2. Adam,

    Brilliant article!

    I get very tired of the same generic language. “Our goal is to exceed your expectation.”

    First off – I don’t care what your goals are! WIIFM!

    Many customer service creeds are so egocentric I can’t believe that no one sees the irony. Many of them plainly state that they expect their customers to provide free R&D services after the pleasure of paying for their products.

    Many companies don’t seem to understand that they are supposed to be the experts in their fields. By saying “help us become better” they are telling their customers “We don’t know what we are doing and need your guidance.” At a very deep level this will never create confidence.

    There are better ways to develop empathy for customers. NPS and Design Thinking are the one two punch. Done well neither suggest to your customers that you have no clue what you are doing and are lost without their survey results.

    Dale H.

  3. Dale, glad you liked the article and I agree on the generic “exceed expectations” mottos.

    I also agree on the use of NPS. I’d be interested in your views on Design Thinking as I see it as an emerging approach in the NPS space.


  4. Adam,

    I hope that the reason that you are seeing more of the connection is that it’s a better tool set not that it’s another bandwagon that people are jumping on.

    They tie together in my mind because both can be excellent drivers of growth in a company with the right culture. Just like NPS it’s not an add on panacea path to the promise land.

    There are three ways to tackle problems; engineering thinking, business thinking and design thinking. Engineering thinking involves formulas. Things have have one answer and by using enough formulas you can get there. A part is always bending. With enough information that problem can be solved. Business thinking involves decisions. Organizing data in different ways to allow a decision to be made. Do I enter this market is a business problem. You can analyze the factors and make a decision. Design thinking is for wicked problems. There is no right answer. In fact seeking the right answer is usually completely the wrong approach. You should be looking for the right answers. There are many names for it Design for Delight, Human Centered Design etc. The elements are often the same. The path starts with deep empathy for the customer. Really get to know their context. At Intuit this means getting on the back of the motorcycle with the owner of a pizza shop. Walk a mile in their shoes. A good portion of time is spent properly defining the problem.

    That’s the introductory view. I’d argue that the biggest problem with most customer feedback programs is that they are trying to be run as engineering problems. As soon as I hear discussions of statistical significance I know the program is off the rails. It’s usually been delegated to a subset of quality assurance and is being run like customers are a process in manufacturing that can be six sigma’d to perfection.

    Eliminating what is wrong is never going to lead to the remarkable breakthroughs that inspired the creation of NPSc and the evolution to NPSs. (Sorry I use NPSc to represent score and NPSs to represent system. Oh and NPSe for employee…)

    Companies that are exemplary have empathy mechanisms built in all the way through their structure. It’s not an add on.

    Dale H.

  5. Dale,

    As far as I can tell none of the Lean, 6Sigma, TQM stuff is very new — just repackaged to for a new audience. I’d don’t much go in for bandwagons. I like stuff that works.

    I think we can have a good discussion here because I think you should run these things like engineering problem and you “manufacture” customer service just as you manufacture widgets.

    Remember the whole “quality” movement is about deeply understanding your customer needs so you can deliver what they want. House of Quality anyone? Sounds much like the deep empathy you reference.

    It might seem like we’re on opposite sides here but I suspect that there will be a lot more common ground that it might seem at the outset.

    Adam Ramshaw

  6. To clarify, the bandwagon I was referring to was Design Thinking.

    The quality movement is all about eliminating mistakes. The design movement is all about making a lot of mistakes quickly…

    Dale H.

  7. Great article Adam. I’ve been doing a lot of research on Zappos customer service lately and this article is spot on. Companies who try to mimic it are setting themselves up for failure by creating a precedent for exuberant expectations.

  8. Luiz, thanks for the kind words on the article. I’m really glad to hear that you have good research on this effect. Great customer service is mostly about expectations and if you mess them up its hard to excite the customer.

    Let me know if you’re keen to share the research as I’d be interested in seeing it.



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