Onboarding
28:44

The Zappos Approach to Building a Great Contact Center Culture

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Episode overview:

Think about the last time you called a contact center. How was your experience? Odds are it wasn’t the best part of your day.

Contact centers have a questionable reputation with both employees and customers. But they’ve become a critical part of the brand experience within the digital marketplace. How can you transcend the stigma and create a best-in-class customer and employee experience?

JD speaks with Rob Siefker, Senior Director of Customer Loyalty at Zappos, to find out what it takes to build a great contact center culture. Rob joined Zappos in 2004 as a temporary contact center agent and helped the team grow from 30 people to over 500. Today, he leads the contact center operation within one of America’s best customer service companies. During our conversation, Rob shares his insights on everything from corporate values and hiring practices to workplace training and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or mental health, please reach out. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357). You can also visit checkpointorg.com for a global list of contacts and services.

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can provide communication and training to your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com. If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com

Join the #FrontlineForward effort by visiting axonify.com/frontlineforward to access free training content, download the 2020 State of Frontline Employee Training Report and subscribe for the updates.

About the Guest(s)

Rob Siefker Zappos
Rob Siefker

Rob joined Zappos.com in January of 2004 and is the Director of the Customer Loyalty Team. He has spent his entire career with Zappos providing the very best service for both customers and employees. Starting his career with the company as a temporary call center employee he has helped the team grow from 30 to 500 employees.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect
JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1:

This episode of the 80% is dedicated to substance abuse and mental health awareness. If you, or someone you know, is struggling and needs help, please reach out. Contact the substance abuse and mental health services administration helpline at (800) 662-HELP that’s (800) 662-4357. Or visit checkpoint org.com for a global list of context and services.

JD Dillon:

On this episode, we explore the importance of providing great virtual customer support in an increasingly digital marketplace. We’re joined by Rob Siefker, Senior Director of customer loyalty at Zappos who takes us inside the mythical Zappos culture and shows us what it takes to build a best-in-class contact center. That’s coming up next on the 80%.

JD Dillon:

When you give the people on your frontline, the tools they need to succeed. Your business succeeds too. Axonify is sharing free training content and ongoing inspiration to help you move your frontline forward. Head over to axonify.com/frontlineforward to learn more.

JD Dillon:

I am on the front line. I am on the front line.

JD Dillon:

I’m on the front line. Together. We will move the frontline forward.

JD Dillon:

I’d like to tell you a story about a woman named Bonnie. Bonnie and I started working together about 10 years ago, when we supported training in a contact center operation. Bonnie was, and still is, a super nice person so we would chat regularly about what was going on in our lives outside of work. One Monday morning, she told me about her recent experience buying shoes over the internet. Now to this day, I don’t really purchase clothing online. I’m not much of a fashion shopper as it is, but if I need pants, I traditionally just went to the closest store, tried on a few pairs, and bought the best option. Mine is a simple, utilitarian approach. When it comes to shoes, I couldn’t imagine buying those online. Just think about how many you usually have to try on and walk around in when you’re in the store, just to find something that fits okay, how many times would you have to return shoes that you bought online? Because they didn’t fit? How long would it take you to eventually get the right pair and how expensive could all of this get? Anyway, Bonnie was telling me about a pair of heels she ordered from this company, but when they got to her, as I had already guessed, they were the wrong size. So she shipped them back free of charge in exchange for the right size. Unfortunately, by the time the shoes were returned, the website had discontinued that style of shoe.

JD Dillon:

But this is where the story got really interesting. You see, instead of just issuing a refund or asking Bonnie to pick out another style of shoe, the contact center agent did something that blew my mind. He went to a competitor’s website, bought the shoes in the style and size Bonnie wanted and had them shipped to her house. And he did all of this while on the phone with Bonnie and without her needing to do anything. This is still the greatest contact center story I’ve ever heard and it immediately became the inspiration for some of the work we were doing within our own contact center operation. Think about it. People almost always have to call a contact center because something is wrong and it’s rarely a positive experience. You wait on hold for an insane amount of time and then you get passed around from person to person, that is, if they don’t hang up on you during the process. Why did this agent make the extra effort to find and purchase the product Bonnie wanted from another online store? Was this something he was trained to do? Or was it something else about the culture at Zappos that inspired him to create the type of customer experience that people just won’t stop talking about? To find out, I spoke with Rob Siefker.

Rob Siefker:

Anybody who’s worked in a call center and answered phones eight hours in a day for weeks or months on end would say, it’s a very challenging job.

JD Dillon:

Rob joined Zappos in 2004 as a temporary contact center agent and help the team grow from 30 people to over 500.

Rob Siefker:

You can have great core values, you can have these great principles, but you still have to manage to it.

JD Dillon:

By October of 2020, when our conversation took place, Rob had become senior director of customer loyalty within an organization described by Newsweek as one of America’s best customer service.

Rob Siefker:

It doesn’t really benefit us to hire somebody and then restrict their performance so much that what’s the point of hiring somebody who is great.

JD Dillon:

Let’s find out what it takes to overcome the stigma of contact centers to create exceptional customer and employee experiences from Rob Siefker.

Rob Siefker:

Pizza can do amazing things.

JD Dillon:

You’ve probably heard of Zappos, whether it be their renowned workplace culture or reputation for great customer service, but just in case:

Rob Siefker:

We’re an online retailer. The first thing that we ever sold, we sold shoes. That was where we got our start and built our name and what we’re still primarily known for would be selling soft line goods, predominantly shoes, footwear. We also sell clothing handbags and other accessories, but still all within the kind of traditional soft lines goods like that.

JD Dillon:

Zappos may sell soft goods today, but their history is interestingly rooted in, of all things, pizza.

Rob Siefker:

One of our previous CEOs, Tony Shay, in college used to sell pizzas and somebody who eventually became our chief operating officer and CFO for a period of time (that he went to college with) used to buy the whole pizzas from him and then sell individual slices to other people in their dorm. And since that moment there’s always been pizza stories, another pizza story that I’ve shared before. In other instances, we had a new hire training class from jet blue called our call center, just to kind of put us to the test, so to speak. It was during the holidays. And one of our seasonal employees took the phone call. They were a bit nervous and excited to take the phone call. And then afterwards helped arrange to send pizza to the training class for jet blue. And then in return, jet blue sent us some travel vouchers that we could auction off or raffle off to our employees. So pizza can do amazing things.

JD Dillon:

Regardless of what products or services they sell. Highly regarded companies like Disney, Southwest and Zappos are intentional about how they build and grow their workplace cultures.

Rob Siefker:

When I started as a temp employee in 2004, we were still based in San Francisco. We did not have a formal way of describing our culture or talking about it, but the culture existed when we moved to Las Vegas, we were, as a company, going through a lot of growth with growth, came hiring a lot of people, especially in the call center because the volume was growing. There were no applications yet so people were still learning the whole idea around shopping online, you know, so in the mid two thousands, there was quite a boom. As we were hiring all of these employees, one of the things that became very apparent was unless we take more care around teaching people who we want to be and what those values are that we hold near and dear, we were going to lose something that we had created a culture that kind of organically grew from the excitement of a small startup.

Rob Siefker:

But how do you scale culture? As a company we went through the exercise of figuring out, well, what are the characteristics and attributes in our best employees that really foster this wonderful culture? Initially it was, I think it was about 37 or 38 attributes that we came up with and that’s too many things for people to remember. And so it was kind of paired down to what became our 10 core values. Those were published for the company and talked about in 2006 where our core values were sent out to our employee base (after an integrating process where everybody kind of had an opportunity to provide feedback on it). Ever since then, we’ve used that kind of as our North star guiding point that helps us define how do we want to develop our culture

JD Dillon:

Of course, to really shape and guide the culture, core values have to be more than just a page in the employee handbook and a poster in the break room.

Rob Siefker:

Anybody who’s worked at a company that has a great culture and been in a position of decision-making would I think agree with the sentiment that you can have great core values, you can have these great principles, but you still have to manage to it. You can’t just let the culture become whatever it is that people want it to be. You still have to keep it within the bounds of what you want to be collectively.

JD Dillon:

When it comes to the front line, which often makes up the majority of the company workforce. An important part of building a strong and resilient culture is recognizing and valuing the work that people do every day.

Rob Siefker:

It is still a very hard job that will never change. Anybody who’s worked in a call center and answered phones eight hours in a day for weeks or months on end would say it’s a very challenging job. From the outside, looking in, people don’t really always see that. They see that maybe people don’t like it, but that’s one of the reasons: it’s a very demanding job.

JD Dillon:

One of the best ways to do this is to populate every department in your company with people who have done the work themselves.

Rob Siefker:

We also promote from within me as an example, I started out as a temporary employee answering the phones, and I’ve been the director of a call center of hundreds of people for 10 years. We promote everybody from within. I don’t hire external managers, we develop all of our talent internally, and that’s another thing that’s unique and not every company would do that. We’re proud of that. There are opportunities and other areas of the company, it’s usually around 25% of the total population of the company that is not the call center. Those roles are held by people who started in the call center. So there are unique things that have been done to grow our company and develop internal talent that has been to the benefit of people who have worked in the call center.

JD Dillon:

This shared understanding seems to play a big role in Zappos’s ability to stand out within their industry. They’ve designed the contact center role to deliver on their unique vision of a customer experience, rather than just on satisfying traditional metrics.

Rob Siefker:

We want to hire great people and then we want to give great people the tools and freedom to do their job effectively. Certainly there are parameters and there are rules, it’s not chaos, it’s easy to over measure and micromanage call center employees because there’s so many data points you can try to squeeze out every little, last bit you possibly can. And what do you do when you have a call center of hundreds or thousands of employees, as you really kind of make their lives miserable by doing that. Then you end up having increasingly high turnover. Then you spend a lot more money on recruiting and trying to hire people that are not as great at providing that level of service. So you create a completely different system and then you can get stuck in that. We always have to continue to build trust between leadership and our frontline team members.

Rob Siefker:

And it’s almost even more difficult. Now, since we’re in this virtual world, if we’re going to hire people, we want them to do a great job. It doesn’t really benefit us to hire somebody and then restrict their performance so much that what’s the point of hiring somebody who’s great? What’s the point of investing in all of this training and all of that time and all of that energy and paying people above a market rate because we put so much value in their work to then say, well, we’re not going to let you do anything effectively. It just seems to be the, that would defeat the whole purpose. If that was the case, then we wouldn’t invest so much in training. We wouldn’t pay them above market, we wouldn’t give them great benefits, we wouldn’t want to have them being promoted from within. So we need to flip that to say “we’re going to hire great people and then trust them by giving them specific tools and responsibilities. Hopefully that continues to build trust but that’s, I guess, kind of how we think about it is giving people the space to be themselves and do a job effectively.

JD Dillon:

A Zappos team member may be doing the same basic job as any other contact center agent, but they’re held to unique expectations that align with the company’s values. Some of these expectations challenge the fundamental beliefs that many traditional contact center managers still hold on to.

Rob Siefker:

One simple thing we do is we do not require people to get off the phone with a customer in a certain amount of time. So there’s one simple thing. You answer the phone, you talk to a customer, you can be on the phone with them for five minutes. You can be on the phone with them for five hours. I don’t care. It’s up to you to create that experience for the customer. And if you end up having a connection and talking to them for a long time, that’s fine by us. We intentionally try to make sure our call center is staffed at a level where we don’t have super high utilization and occupancy rates because our culture also involved activities on the campus team, building events or different things that took people away from their core job, but we’re still a part of our culture. We’ve tried always to have enough staff to accommodate those things. Now we can’t accommodate it for every employee, for every activity, for everything they want. Sure. That’s understandable. It’s not always exactly how we want it. That’s part of trying to manage to a changing environment around us, but that’s something that we try to do is to have enough bandwidth in our staff where not only could we handle a little extra capacity or volume on any given day, but we also have extra time for people to be able to participate and do other things.

JD Dillon:

It’s not uncommon to hear managers tell agents to stick to the script in a typical contact center, because they’re so afraid of what could happen, but how realistic is this fear and how much does it ultimately inhibit agent performance?

Rob Siefker:

There’s probably an unreasonable amount of fear about what one call center employee could do. Are they going to bring down the company by going out and buying a customer shoes from a different company? No. Some people may consider that example that we brought up earlier in the conversation as a mistake, but I consider that, wow, that’s really cool. There are certain areas of obviously protecting customer data, customer information that are big areas of focus that employees know: those things are sacred, but that’s easy to train to that and to communicate those things.

JD Dillon:

Because they understand the connection between the agent role and their brand vision Zappos can enable their frontline in ways that help them deliver great experiences while still coloring within the lines.

Rob Siefker:

The choices that they’re making on behalf of customers are usually around. Do I need to give them a concession here? Or should I go out and buy them this pair of shoes because we’ve made a mistake or I’m going to send this customer some cookies because we had a great conversation or send them a card, the tools they have at their disposal to some degree limit the risk exposure. Most companies would confine those tools so far down that there’s no ability to make any decision that exposes any amount of risk. But the risk that they’re mitigating is so meaningless that directly impacts the employee’s ability to feel comfortable or trusted themselves. And then they aren’t even given tools to effectively solve customer problems. So that’s a little bit of how I think about it. I’m not scared of our employees.

JD Dillon:

Training is another powerful tool for building company culture. Zappos leverages their onboarding program to align everyone, regardless of role on the vision and values of the company from day one,

Rob Siefker:

When someone is onboarded at Zappos, whether you are coming into the call center, or you’re going to be an engineer, everybody goes through the same training. And that corporate training involves a lot of things that most people would get when they give, get hired somewhere. That’s not part of a call center training, but everybody that gets hired also goes through the call center portion of the training. If you’re that engineer or part of the legal team, you’re still going to learn how to talk to customers and you will talk to customers during your training period. You’re in the same class with call center people. So for us, from a culture perspective, everybody knows we’re focused on customers, here’s who we are as a culture, here’s how we’re structured as a company, these are the things that we do. Everybody’s going to talk to customers during their training period. And you’re going to meet and collaborate and do projects during this training period with people in different areas of the company. So you’re going to build relationships across the different areas of the organization. Anybody you talk to at Zappos has gone through this process. They all remember their new hire training period, very fondly because it’s made to be very fun. It’s a very good indoctrination into our culture.

JD Dillon:

Contact center training typically requires weeks in a classroom before new agents get on the phone, but how much do people actually remember when they’re firehosed with hours upon hours of information, plus managers want agents in the operation as soon as possible. With the right level of knowledge, Zappos has managed to find a balance between focus training and hands-on practical experience.

Rob Siefker:

One of the things that we found for our call center employees was as the training was getting longer and longer and incorporating all of these other things that were not call center specific was that the call center employees were coming in and they were a little bit less prepared than they should be to do their job. When the training got extended from two weeks to three weeks, and this was many years ago, we implemented in inside the call center incubation training period, where it was heavily on the phone, on the job training, but still in a much more controlled environment. And so we would do that for several weeks before somebody would go finally to their full team that they would get assigned to, and then be doing their job so that when they got to their new coach or team they’ve already gone through what became four weeks of new hire training, and then three weeks of this on the job training where they would be doing the job most of the time. But there was a lot of additional hands-on training and coaching to really make sure that they fully understood the job before they went and were assigned to their team. So they were pretty well experienced by that point.

JD Dillon:

Learning doesn’t end, once onboarding is complete, you have to find ways to fit continued training and communication activity into the daily workflow to make sure agents are always prepared for what comes next.

Rob Siefker:

The other thing in terms of ongoing, this is an area where it’s always challenging because, you know, time is always the enemy of a call center. We try to make sure we hire above what the baseline staffing needs would be, so that we have a little bit of extra bandwidth for cultural things. Those things also compete for time with things when we have needs for training, but we do various online trainings. We have a group that manages all of the communication and up training and kind of on the fly updates about what’s going on and so we try to structure it in an efficient and effective manner while also realizing that sometimes you do need to take the time to pull people back out of their day to day and really focus on maybe a specific topic that is a super big importance. And in those cases, as they arise, we’ll figure out a way to make sure we can get that training done. But then on a more regular basis, each team has, we call them Suttles (It’s like a huddle). It’s like a team meeting they’re not super long and they’re focused on agenda items. Teams are assigned periods of time where they can together and talk about hot topics and address kind of things that are ongoing.

JD Dillon:

This commitment to continuous learning also helps managers focus on the most important parts of their roles

Rob Siefker:

For those managers. I’d say their number one thing is making sure employees feel comfortable, safe, and are updated and can facilitate any needs that they may have to navigate something that’s going on in the organization. It’s a big responsibility and it incorporates all of those things. We survey the teams based on their team leaders, performance and feedback. So they’re getting feedback directly from their team members as well. And so they have to be accountable to that.

JD Dillon:

A strong company culture is about more than just day-to-day performance. It can also help you prepare for the unexpected.

Rob Siefker:

You know, there’s always going to be ups and downs. I would not by any means, say that we’re constantly and always a perfect reflection of what we want to be. We’re constantly trying to recalibrate of how do we make sure we’re continuing to move in the right direction. There will be ups and downs and external forces that are placed upon a company and an organization over time that you’re going to have to respond to, whether it be the great recession and an incredibly challenging period of time where business wasn’t going great. Even this year has been a huge challenge working from home, not being together, physically. Those things have put tremendous challenges in front of us to recalibrate who do we want to be? How do we adjust to this? How do we improve these things where employees are feeling disconnected or whatever it may be, or emotionally in a more challenging place, because this year has put people in an emotionally challenging place and not everybody responds to it the same way. Those things still come in to your organization and impact your culture. And so you have to be thoughtful around how is it impacting and then how can we alleviate some pressures where we may not be able to control for everything, but what can we control for and how can we do so in a way to foster a better working environment and collaborative and family oriented environment around us?

JD Dillon:

This has been especially true in facing the disruption brought on by the pandemic.

Rob Siefker:

In some ways, certain things haven’t changed, but one thing that has been a huge impact is just the emotion of this year. As an example, when the pandemic first started, one of the things that became very challenging for us is supply chain. So everybody’s ordering everything online. We’re a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon so we’re part of their fulfillment network and their network was put under a huge amount of strain because with all of the online shopping and ordering. And that wasn’t just exclusive to us that that’s every company out there that sells online UPS, FedEx, the postal service, any carrier they’re flooded with shipments and units. So it slowed down the fulfillment network and supply chain across the country. And there’s one major big driver for an online retailer for volume and that’s when supply chain issues cause delays that are outside of the expectations of customers.

Rob Siefker:

So it’s very busy through the first few months of the pandemic. We started to try to hire and onboard people, but we couldn’t keep up as quickly with how things were changing. And so not only was our team like everyone else in the world put through the emotional toll and strain of how to respond to the early days of the pandemic. They were also under a tremendous amount of pressure work-wise because we were busy. The things going on outside are going to come in to play and impact the emotional wellbeing of your team and so our biggest thing to kind of be thoughtful about is just to be super empathetic, compassionate as much as we can with our team members, to give them the space, to just try to get by in some ways, you know, and knowing that it was a very challenging working environment for them, we’re still trying to serve customers.

Rob Siefker:

Some of our employees love working from home. Some of them are so sad to not be able to be together on the Zappos campus because that’s where they feel most comfortable and safest. And we can’t provide that environment for them right now safely. It calls on me more than ever in my job to really lean in on being the best version of myself on a personal professional level, from an employee perspective to lead and to mentor be compassionate and show empathy and understanding. So I don’t think we did a perfect job by any means as a company, as we navigated this, I think we did the best that we could, but I think there are things that we would certainly have wanted to do differently. Those are learning experiences and we’ll keep those with us and then from here on forward, trying to do our best to hire enough people have enough staff and continue to make sure our employees feel like they matter because they do and make sure they feel appreciated.

JD Dillon:

Culture is everyone’s responsibility, but as you’ve heard to build a best in class culture, you may have to reimagine the way work is done within your industry. To make these kinds of strategic changes. You need the right level of investment. This means buy-in has to start at the top.

Rob Siefker:

Do you work at a company where the executives who can determine whether or not that gets appropriately invested in, do they care? If they do, then I can give you an answer and give you some guidance. But if they don’t, then I would say, the first thing you need to do is to find a job at a company where that matters, and then we can start talking. Otherwise, if it doesn’t matter there, then the advice I’m going to give you is going to be eternally frustrating because you’ll never get it done.

JD Dillon:

In the end, there is no one thing that makes Zappos, Zappos. It’s a unique and meaningful blend of mindsets, values and tactics that initially help the company carve out their niche in the early days of e-commerce. And today it makes them the envy of so many other contexts in our operations around the world.

Rob Siefker:

Hire great people and make sure that you invest a lot in thinking about how do you make sure that the people you let through the door are the highest caliber candidate that fit the requirements and the needs of what you want to accomplish. So start there really make sure that that part is ironed up really nicely. Then make sure you really are thoughtful about how do you need to train people to be able to meet your objectives? Make sure your training is structured around what your objectives are. Make sure that on the job training is good. Make sure you have a good leadership development, provide opportunities for people. Don’t burn them out, have a communication strategy, have a culture strategy, invest in your people, build relationships, start with those things. And I think you’ll have a good start.

JD Dillon:

Thanks to Rob Siefker for sharing his Zappos story and insights into building a great contact center culture. Check out the show notes to learn even more about Zappos. If you haven’t already be sure to subscribe to the 80% on your favorite podcast app, you can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. Thanks for joining me for this story. I hope you’re able to walk away with a few practical insights you can use to improve the way you support your frontline team. And I hope you’ll join me again for another story about how we can help frontline employees do their best work every day and make a difference in their organizations and communities. Remember that together, we can move the frontline forward.

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