Being humble isn’t something you usually see!

One of the great success stories of the past few years, Zappos is on everyone’s radar as a great company, both as far as being a great company to work for and as far as being a great success story. Here is a true rags to riches story of a company which started in a nondescript apartment and went on to become a multimillion dollar empire.

Zappos didn’t have fancy backers throwing millions of dollar at them when they started (in contrast to other dot com companies of the time — pets.com for example spent something like $100 million before they went bust.) They just knew how to act like decent people and they profited handsomely from this fact. Here are nine lessons you can learn from Zappos:

What is Zappos Anyway?

Let’s start by discussing just what Zappos is anyway. The company started out selling nothing but shoes. They eventually expanded and moved into selling clothing and other items in much the same way that Amazon.com started out as just an online bookstore and eventually started expanding until they became the all in one online supermarket we see today. Zappos hasn’t strayed quite that far from its roots, but it has definitely widened its focus somewhat to deal with things like apparel.

Actually, the name Zappos was chosen specifically to allow the company to expand beyond the shoe market. They started with a domain name called shoesite.com, but decided that they needed something more generic which would allow them to expand and so they created a word based on the Spanish for shoes (Zapatos) which is today a household name.

The Zappos Difference

The thing that has made Zappos so wildly popular and such a massive success story might be summed up in what we could probably call the “Zappos difference.” The company is known for doing things in a way which puts people before profits. They have consistently been ranked as one of the best places to work in America and customers consistently rank them as being one of their favorite companies.

A Philosophy of Treating Customers Like Human Beings

I’ve said many times on these pages that simply treating your customers like human beings who actually have opinions and are not just annoying people who have to be fobbed off on a voice mail system is the best policy and Zappos proves my point. Zappos is one of the few companies left in the United States where you don’t have to worry about navigating through a maze of different menu options before you sit for half an hour waiting on hold.
Of course, even if you don’t have the staff or money to do what Zappos does, simply treating people like human beings and offering to get someone on the phone for them to talk to when they need someone will go a long way. Don’t forget that in a world where people expect useless layers of voice mail and half hour waits to speak to someone, simply answering the phone or dropping the wait time will make you stand out.

Taking the Time to Do Things the Right Way

While many companies have in house training programs for their new hires, Zappos takes this to a whole new extreme — they spend a couple of months training people. And no, they don’t train them in the skills they’ll need for the job. That comes later. First, they need to get trained in the culture of Zappos.

That’s right — the culture of Zappos. I know it sounds a tad cultish, but rest assured, if it is a cult, it’s a benign one. In essence, the training in Zappos culture talks about putting the customer first and making sure that they are happy. This again is one of the keys to the Zappos success story — that they really do take the time to do things right — even the customer service.

Treating Employees Right

There’s a reason people love working at Zappos and it’s got nothing to do with the cheery attitude that seems to pervade throughout the company. No, it has everything to do with the fact that Zappos recognizes that their employees are people too. They try to be open and fun about how things are done and they allow people to explore their passions, even going so far as to encourage people to learn more during company time.

This philosophy has served the company well as it has continued to thrive and to grow. Why? It’s simple really — when you genuninely feel good about being a part of something, you make it your business to do your very best. However, when you are stressed and constantly being pushed around, you tend to retreat inside of yourself and decide that you simply cannot be bothered.

Talking

Yes, I know — it sounds so utterly and completely obvious to say it, but it’s true. One of the key points which has made Zappos into the powerhouse that it is today is communication. By taking the time to communicate properly (it’s actually one of their “core” values), they cut down significantly on friction in the workplace and are able to keep people happy.

And remember — a happy employee is much more likely to give his or her all for the company than an unhappy employee who is only biding her time until the economy improves and she can find a job somewhere else (anywhere else).

Making Do

As I said, the Zappos concept started in a fairly humble way and that philosophy has served the company well throughout its history. Zappos employees are encouraged to “do more with less.”

Now while this may sound like a recipe for disaster, when this philosophy gets combined with the other policies at this giant retailer, it creates a truly amazing experience for all those involved, allowing you to have employees who are truly committed both to working for the company and to helping the company to save money.

Being Adventurous

Great companies are built on the backs of even greater ideas. That’s why companies like Google and Facebook work so hard to attract the best and brightest — because they know that ultimately, this is what is going to allow them to succeed in the world.

Zappos encourages this kind of adventurous creativity in its employees too. This has allowed them to constantly stay ahead of the curve and to actually get into various niches before they grow cold or even to create new ones.

Encouraging the same kind of spirit of adventure within your own employees is critical if you want to move beyond your own little box and get into the world of making real money online (or offline for that matter).

Humility

Being humble isn’t something you usually see encouraged in a large and successful company. However, it is one of the core values at Zappos and it really does help them to keep things in perspective. By being humble and realizing that they probably cannot control everything that happens to them (and that a good bit of luck has been thrown into the mix as well), the people at Zappos are able to weather most storms.

The idea basically revolves around realizing that you really are only as good as your next big success story and that you don’t necessarily have all the answers. When you start to think that way, communication begins to occur and people start to listen and actually get themselves involved in the business doing whatever needs to be done to make the company successful.

Be Flexible

Okay, for our final lesson from the folks at Zappos, I’m not looking at what the company says they do. I’m looking at what the company actually did. I’m reminded of an interview I heard once with MJ Demarco, who created an online limousine service and eventually sold it for something on the order of $10,000,000.

He said that the market will show you where your business needs to go and he was 100% correct about that — your customers will show you where to go with your business and if you are flexible enough to adapt, you can make it too.

Zappos, as I said earlier, started out as purely shoe oriented store. However, they quickly expanded their line of offerings and they did it fairly early in the cycle. This allowed them to beyond the core that they started with that much more quickly.

However, even if they hadn’t planned for the future and had been stuck with the less catchy sounding ShoeSite.com, by simply being flexible enough to make the changes that needed to be made when they need to be made, Zappos was able to become the powerhouse success story they are today.

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