First of all, let’s not look at the cup as half empty for Zappos, because I believe it is two-thirds full.  At the Economist Marketing Forum held in San Francisco this year Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay) and two CMO’s from Del Monte and Frito Lay discussed the role of marketing in their organizations amongst other things (watch: Ties That Must Bind: Why CEOs Rely on CMOs More Than Ever).  The poor guys in the traditional roles of CMOs (by function) had to listen to Tony say that they really didn’t have a marketing function at Zappos.  They reinvested into customer service and the better service was the marketing for Zappos.  I thought the others would spontaneously combust.

So yes, there is much to like about Zappos.  Let me highlight a few other comments Tony Hsieh made that got my attention:

  • Our culture (of customer service) is our brand
  • Investment of surprise upgrades to customers
  • Repeat customers from word-of-mouth (pull, not push)
  • Investment in culture is not an immediate benefit like cutting costs, long-term thinking is necessary
  • The use of the telephone as a branding device
  • Allowing new hires to weed themselves out by offering significant money ($2,000) if they quit
  • A lot of emphasis in getting the right people in the organization
  • Leadership development and training

So why the heading about the “Achilles Heel”?  What could possibly better than this.  I got concerned when Tony started to talk about:

  • Low Performers (and how they weeded out “Jack Welch” style the low 8%).  I don’t know the nature of the 8% and it could be they hired the wrong people before they ”improved” the hiring process.  But it brings up questions about having already invested in training and Tony said they were profitable when they did it and didn’t have to do fire the 8%.  Who says that if they dip back into the pool of people available that they will find better employees than the ones they just let go and now they have to be trained.  This “renewal” process is expensive.
  • Call Monitoring.  Call monitoring has a useful purpose if the agent is new or if the monitoring is for improvement efforts.  Regulatory compliance is waste, but required and doesn’t always require monitoring that’s just they way people interpret it.  Otherwise, call monitoring used as inspection comes too late and is costly.  if the other elements like culture, hiring the right people, management thinking, etc. are correct do I really need to inspect?
  • Performance Appraisal.  I was disappointed to hear that performance appraisal was being used.  My fear is that the worker is being managed command and control style. If I understand purpose “to serve the customer” what possible good can come from an appraisal of performance.  It distracts the worker from “serving the customer” to “serving my supervisor or manager” or could over time . . . this is a type of waste.
  • Financial Goals.  If this means targets for profits  that lead to scorecards, MBO or the like trouble is not far away.  The targets (financial or performance) will ultimately become the defacto purpose of the organization and customer service will become secondary to the target.
  • Failure Demand.  How many phone calls are they getting that are follow-ups, wrong shipments, wrong billing, problems with the product, etc?  This is failure demand and even if you have nice people and good service if failure demand runs high customers will eventually erode their advantage and go elsewhere.  So, what percentage of calls are failure demand?
  • Do they understand variation?  Do they understand when a worker is statistically different from other workers?  Do they understand how to use data for prediction?  Do they understand the difference between “special” and “common” causes of variation that will help them continually improve their organization.
  • How will they achieve continual or continuous improvement?  “By what method” will they improve.  Will command and control or will systems thinking prevail in their business improvement efforts?

I know he didn’t talk about the last three, but these are things that will play themselves out over time.  There is much for Zappos to be proud of in its inception-to-date achievements and I can only hope that continue to maintain that innovation leadership that they have on their side now.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at or LinkedIn at