8 ridiculous ways Zappos keeps customers and staffers happy

365-day return policy? Directing customers to competitors’ websites? Paying trainees $4,000 to quit? That’s no way to thrive—or is it?

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You think you work for an odd place? Try Zappos, the shoes and accessories company that values staff and customer good will above sales.

Its secret to landing on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For is putting customers and employees first—even in ways that sound like business suicide.

The Las Vegas-area footwear firm sees itself as a service company that just happens to sell shoes, says Loren Becker, the downtown coordinator and experience and community team manager. So, customer happiness matters more than making the sale.

“We might not have every shoe in every color with every size,” Becker says, “but if we provide fanatical customer service, then those customers will continue to return and purchase from us—or continue to give us chances until we can get all the products that they have.”

Zappos must be on to something. Some 75 percent of its sales come from repeat customers.

Here are some utterly ridiculous—and successful—ideas that keep Zappos growing.

1. Ask unusual job interview questions.

If you don’t know your staffers’ favorite superhero, what do you know about them? Or so Zappos seems to think.

Those doing the hiring also ask questions such as:

  • On a scale of one to 10 how weird are you?
  • Would you like to hang out at your boss’s house on the weekend or go over for a barbecue?

For applicants tempted to ask, “What’s it to you?” Becker says Zappos encourages people to have friendships at work. Managers must spend 20 percent of their time outside the office with employees, doing things like going out for lunch or team-building.

2. Offer free shipping. And free return shipping. Plus, a 365-day return policy.

Many overworked and underpaid communicators purchase new shoes only when the old ones fall to pieces. But Zappos customers sometimes buy shoes they never wear.

“I’ve learned in the shoe business that ladies will buy shoes and they might stay in the closet before they ever try them on,” Becker says. “Eight, nine months later they see those shoes in the closet, and they realize they’re not really into them anymore.”

These Imelda Marcos facsimiles can mail their pumps, stilettos, or combat boots back free and get a refund up to a year later. Most returns come within the first 30 to 90 days.

3. Send customers to a competitor’s website if Zappos doesn’t have what they need.

Zappos staffers not only direct customers to rivals, “but we’d be happy to go through the website, find the item for them, give them the description number,” Becker says.

4. Hold a Bald and Blue Day.

Sure, you serve punch and cookies during the holidays. A few spirited employees show up in witches’ wigs or ketchup-stained mummy bandages on Halloween.

But come on: Do you have a day when everyone either shaves their head bald or dyes their hair blue—including the CEO? (Presumably this is optional and rogue barbers aren’t tackling secretaries in the lunchroom to buzz their heads.)

How about a teen-themed event to celebrate your 14th anniversary: an Awkward Prom? Zappos hosts both such events.

5. Treat your call center as a social network.

Zappos allows call center employees to express themselves. If anything, staffers are free to engage the customer any way they see fit.

Those three or four minutes spent gabbing with the fashion plate or footwear fetishist generate deep loyalty over time.

“The phone is a great social networking tool outside of Pinterest or Twitter,” he says.

6. Require four weeks of training.

The training process is longer than most, and all employees are required to put at least 40 hours of customer service work on the phones during training—even if they’re going to work in the café. Plus, the rule is “all hands on deck” during holiday season. Everyone mans the phones—even the CEO.

7. Make your bigwigs go through training, too.

Think your CEO knows the business from top to bottom? Maybe, but perhaps not as well as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Once a new-hire training program was established, he went through it along with everyone else.

Zappos’ chief financial officer even changed his Web profile and took his photo off the wall so he could go through training anonymously. He sent out an email asking staffers not to let the newcomers in on the fact that he was one of the execs. He joined them in after-training study sessions, hung out with them, and even offered them rides to work.

8. Pay trainees $4,000 to quit.

Tell them they’ll get a bonus for walking out before the end of training. That’s a lot of money for the typical call-center employee.

It’s worth the investment, says Becker. Zappos wants employees who are eager to work there, rather than lunch-bucket types who trudge in the door because they’ve got nowhere else to go.

Only about 2 percent of people who go through training take the buyout offer, and Zappos thinks that’s a bargain.

@r_working

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