Monday, July 22, 2013

Does Your Call Center Compete?

Our leadership team recently had the opportunity to visit the Zappos office in Las Vegas and take part in their 3 day “Zappos Insights Boot Camp”.  This was a very interesting and unique experience as Zappos is well known for their company culture and how they have become one of the best places to work in America. 
Zappos started out as an on-line site to buy shoes, and now sell a wide variety of products through their web site although shoes certainly remain a staple for them.  One reason that the Zappos story is so interesting is because of how they organize and run their call center. Call centers are notorious for being unhappy, unfriendly, toxic environments where anyone can get hired but no one with any talent or skill tends to stay for very long.  However, that is not the case at Zappos, where every employee in the call center is upbeat, smiling, and anxious to serve their customers. How did Zappos do that?
By clearly creating and reinforcing a culture that is unique from any other call center I’ve ever experienced.
On our first day at Zappos, before we even had a chance to learn anything about the company, before we had a chance to hear about the Zappos Culture, and before we had even met our first Zappos employee, we were given a tour of their call center. 
I was shocked. 
Call centers tend to be uniform in their layout and design with hundreds of identical cubes lined up, with employees slowly milling about glassy-eyed and almost comatose as they avoided customer calls.  Call center personnel are typically graded on how quickly they get resolution on each call, which is a nice way to say that they are paid to get off the phone in a hurry; whether the problem has been solved or not.  The rooms are generally quiet, still, and bland except for the muffled tones of employees droning on to unknown customers on the phone lines.
Not so at Zappos.  There, employees were grouped into teams of 8 – 10 where each group came up with their own identity and then decorated their area based on that.  We saw Star Trek teams, teams dedicated to long defunct rock bands, some to more recent music stars, and of course the required “Simpsons” team.  The decorations were in some cases crude, but in all cases both colorful and plentiful.  The huge call center resembled the birthday party of an over-sugared 10 year old.  
While the team lines were clearly delineated, there was no concern over cliques forming.  You see, teams only stay together for a few months and were then disbanded so that new teams could be formed with new ideas and new decorations.   Over time you get the chance to be team members with many, if not all of your fellow employees. 
Employees are not rated on how quickly they get off the call, but by how quickly they answer the next call in their queue and their ability to meet a number of points on their call check list. That list specifically calls out making a connection with the customer. Since call length is not important, the employees feel no need to rush their customers.  In fact, they are encouraged to spend the time getting to know them.   They are encouraged to build relationships with customers that they will likely never meet in person.  Why?  Because customers who know you care will likely call back and buy more products.   Customers are not someone that you must “deal with” instead they are treated like an old friend that you are anxious to help.
And this attitude extends beyond the call center to every aspect and job within Zappos.   Zappos has done what no other company to my knowledge has been able to do: they make working in a call center fun.  And that is no easy task.

Here are the key things we learned that I believe can be transferred to the development of almost any culture:
  1. Know your culture before you can imprint it. Clearly, values play an important part in defining that culture, and   Zappos started with a list of simple words that defined their values.  They started with 10, and further-clarified them by changing them from simple words to short statements, each one starting with a verb.  So “customer service” turned into “Deliver WOW through Service”.  “Fun” turned into “Create fun and a little weirdness”.
  2. While skills are important to any position, skills are teachable.  When hiring they make sure that each new employee embodies the spirit that is the Zappos culture.  Culture interviewing is critical in their hiring process, and if there is any question about a potential employees ability to fit the culture, that person is not offered a position.
  3. Zappos employees must show that they fit the culture continually.  Someone is more likely to be fired for failure to meet the culture than they are by failing to perform.
  4. Cultural assessments are performed annually across the organization and are as important as objective based Performance Reviews.
  5. Everyone proudly displays the Zappos name.  From T-shirts to mugs, pens and key chains, the Zappos name is ever-present, and employees display their wares proudly. 
  6. Employees are encouraged to nominate their peers for special awards when they display the Zappos spirit and culture. 
I could go on and on, but they key takeaway for me was that when you want to build something special and deliver a better customer experience that leads to happy, repeat customers, as well as engaged employees, it all begins with your culture.