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Zappos' 'Customer Service for Anything' is a very human experience

As an extrovert, I’ve been struggling with a lack of social interaction while working from home. I gain energy and insight by connecting with others. So when I heard about Zappos’ Customer Service for Anything program, where anyone can call, text, or email its customer service team about anything, I was eager for a warm voice to chat with. I spent over half an hour on the phone with Margaret, a Zappos agent who was genuinely happy to meet me. And I even felt more productive that day because of it.

In a world where the only constant is change, Zappos is showing businesses the power of slowing down to build connection. Growing and retaining customers during times of prosperity, as well as volatility, starts with building deeper, more human relationships—human being the operative word. In fact, a study by Deloitte revealed that companies that prioritize human values are twice as likely to outperform their peers in revenue growth and have 17 times faster store growth than those who do not. Given our uncertain future, focusing on human experiences may have even greater business appeal.

[Listen: The Zappos Experience: Creating a customer service culture]

Paying down human debt

Deloitte explains that many businesses have run up a “human debt”—meaning that using easy or limited solutions to keep up with the rapid pace of change of our ever-evolving digital world has come at a cost.

Constant acceleration towards emerging technology tends to push companies into over-optimizing every part of the business. But the desire for efficiency and obsession with designing the optimal customer, partner, or employee experience sometimes means that businesses use technology for the sake of it—losing sight of its human impact.

Growing and retaining customers during times of prosperity, as well as volatility, starts with building deeper, more human relationships—human being the operative word.

“We don’t wake up as customers, partners, or even as members of the workforce. We begin and end each day as humans. Yet, our technologies and pace of change are making us feel, well, a bit less human,” according to the Deloitte study. It goes on:

“At the heart of the human condition is a desire for connection, to feel valued, and as Brené Brown famously wrote in Daring Greatly, ‘to be seen, valued and heard.’ As the pace of technology is accelerating around us at a dizzying rate, our human values change much less perceptibly.”

[Related read: Soothing consumer anxieties with 'calm commerce'—a rising trend in retail]

If there’s an example of a company that’s human-debt free, it’s Zappos. Human values have always been core to the fabric of the company’s DNA. So much so, every person at the company takes customer service calls in their new hire training, ensuring they build human connections with customers from the start.

“We’re so serious about empathy and connection that every person in the company goes through customer service training. We start by focusing on those soft skills before moving on to the technical pieces,” said Brian Kalma, entrepreneur in residence at Zappos.

Kalma explained in an interview that Zappos’ dedication to care and empathy over the years is one of the reasons that so many people at the company had the idea to repurpose its experienced customer service team to help others navigate this shift to sheltering in place.

Becoming human debt-free doesn’t happen overnight. Human-centricity is a muscle a business needs to build. Here are some steps businesses can take to bring more humanity back into the experience, taking a page from Zappos’ book.

Becoming human debt-free doesn't happen overnight. Human-centricity is a muscle a business needs to build.

5 steps to becoming a human-centric business

1. Align values across the customer, partner, and employee experience
According to Deloitte, when organizations try to pay down human debt, they often narrowly focus on one area of the business, typically the customer or partner experience. But to build a human-centric business, these human experiences must be meaningful to all parts of the organization, aligning values across the company.

The idea behind Customer Service for Anything came from Zappos’ community of employees. Zappos has an internal operating system called Market Based Dynamics, where internal teams become customers of one another, harnessing the power of collective intelligence to improve the employee, customer, community, partner, and vendor experiences.

“It’s a system that enables people with ideas to execute against them while leveraging the internal ‘marketplace’ of Zappos talent,” said Kalma. “When the world abruptly changed and we at Zappos felt the change ourselves—We are our own customers too!—it enabled us to spring into action and solve a newly uncovered and rapidly evolving problem: uncertainty.”

One reason why the program has been so impactful is that it resonates with customers and employees alike, allowing agents to connect to its community in a new, human way.

“We’ve heard and received a plethora of messages from folks answering calls, emails, and SMS for Customer Service for Anything, and the sentiment is quite positive,” said Kalma. “Our teams get excited by helping others, particularly when helping others in a manner that is relatable, like this particular moment in time.”

[Related read: Strategies for leading others through continual change at work]

2. Slow down and build connection
Humans are hardwired for connection, so a business obsessed with all things human needs to tell stories that resonate and create experiences that evoke feeling, according to Deloitte.

“This requires organizations to be fast and agile to meet a person at the point of need, even if the need is to slow down and build connection. Brands and organizations can’t be human if they can’t be present,” the study reads.

One reason why the program has been so impactful is that it resonates with customers and employees alike, allowing agents to connect to its community in a new, human way.

For Zappos, executing with humanity meant quickly re-evaluating key performance indicators like first-reply time and tickets solved per hour. Creating an experience built on enabling customers to share their experiences requires a special definition of support success. Zappos empowers agents to do what it takes to build relationships and relationships take time.

“Agents are spending more time on calls. While this is a signal of positive engagement, it introduces other challenges like possible increased wait times. But we believe that the more meaningful engagements we have, the better off we all are,” said Kalma. “We encourage our team members to bring a human aspect into every interaction and to remember that every person has a story.”

People also call just to ask how agents are feeling. "This is moving to see, as it embodies care and empathy. It adds fuel to keep us going," said Kalma.

Conversations that stand out to the team include single parents wanting to talk to more adults during their days in quarantine and someone asking for help deciding what to get a parent for their 80th birthday, after canceling vacation plans due to the pandemic. Sometimes we all just need a second opinion or a fresh idea. People also call just to ask how agents are feeling. “This is moving to see, as it embodies care and empathy. It adds fuel to keep us going,” said Kalma.

[Related read: Talking about mental health at work, now part of the employee experience]

3. Use technology thoughtfully and empathetically
When used thoughtfully and empathetically, technology can help drive a human experience. Deloitte points to predictive analytics and AI as being particularly valuable, enabling a business to execute with humanity at scale.

Creating an experience built on enabling customers to share their experiences requires a special definition of support success.

The key is to combine technology with human intelligence, levering technology to make humans happier, drive smarter decisions, and create better overall experiences. It’s no longer a question if a business should use technology so much as where and how it should use it to foster human-technology partnerships that work better together.

[Related read: 3 ways for businesses to embrace AI and not lose the human touch]

Technology is vital to Zappos’ Customer Service for Anything program. It enables Zappos to scale kindness and meet its community where they are, allowing people to reach out via the channel they prefer—whether that’s calling, emailing, or texting. Having a mix of channels connected to Zappos’ tech stack also allows the company to appeal to different customer-audiences. According to Zendesk’s Customer Experience Trends Report 2020, Gen Z and millennials tend to prefer to connect with brands through SMS, while Boomers remain fans of email and the phone.

4. Build a business around authenticity
Dedication to building customer relationships sets a business apart, but only when the company is authentic in its approach.

Businesses built around authenticity have an appreciation for creating something real and making people feel something. They have a knack for building experiences based on being present and listening, asking questions and wanting to uncover the truth, and inciting emotion.

[Related read: Who thought being authentic would be this hard?]

When brands manipulate a human experience into a sales opportunity it can feel disingenuous, especially amidst uncertainty. Customers are smart enough to separate the real from the bull.

Zappos is building authenticity by creating a space to connect on a human level—even if someone isn’t a customer and might never become one. When I called the hotline, I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t offered a promo code or pressured to buy something. It was refreshing that the agent was genuinely happy to speak with me, without a catch. This is the kind of meaningful experience that builds trust, so there’s a tangible takeaway even if that person doesn’t make a purchase.

Businesses built around authenticity have an appreciation for creating something real and making people feel something.

At Zappos, authenticity also means trusting its agents to listen and respond to people with empathy, without scripts or canned responses—investing instead in its up-front training and agent empowerment.

“We let agents use their own discretion to determine what ‘right’ is on a case by case basis,” Kalma said. “Our teams are humans, just like our current and future customers. We celebrate the moments in which we make an impact on people.”

[Related read: Want customers to trust you? Trust your agents to make them happy]

5. Change the world
The last step to building a human experience Deloitte recommends is the most complex: “A human experience can be transformative; it takes on a life of its own, in the same way that a smile begets a smile. That’s a high bar for organizations—but one worth striving to achieve.”

Striving to change the world might sound like an impossible feat, but Zappos’ program has already done so. While serving as a kind voice for someone lonely or helping someone find the latest guidelines about the stay-at-home order might seem like a small task, it leaves a meaningful impact.

[Related read: Business isn't always about commerce; it's also about community]

Zappos’ customer service team has even helped save lives. The team located some pulse oximeters in just a few days for Putrino Labs when the organization was in dire need and couldn’t procure them quickly enough through its own channels. “This was a meaningful experience for those involved. Our team performed a lot of research to find these items, and once procured successfully, folks internally were moved that we made an impact,” said Kalma.

Zappos’ hotline allowed me to break up my day with good conversation, and that made an impact on me. Now whenever I think of Zappos, I can’t help but smile as I recall my conversation with Margaret. These are the kinds of authentic, emotional, and trustworthy, experiences a business needs to become human-centric. And if you’re wondering how to measure experiences like these, ask yourself whether someone will smile when they think of your business.

Photo source: Zappos