Why customers should be the hero of any business story

- 201202

The sad news of the passing of former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was covered by many titles I follow, from Forbes and Tech Crunch to the Verge and the Guardian.

Zappos has existed for me at the opposite end of the shoe spectrum in which my career evolved. After all, I worked for the king of red soles, Christian Louboutin, for 17 years. Whilst I wasn't very familiar with the business, I was aware of the extraordinary company culture he built the success of the company on, uniquely based around servicing clients' needs.

Each of the articles I read noted Tsieh’s kindness, his humble personal style and I discovered more about his unorthodox company hierarchy and other quirks including ‘The Offer’. To the newest employees, the company offers to pay them for time worked plus $1000. A way to elicit the enthusiastic buy-in from the right type of recruits, a sort of a corporate version of “if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no!”

The emphasis on customer service didn’t come from a generous and humanistic trait as much as a bold and well-researched strategy.

What’s happiness?

The Harvard computer science graduate built a large part of his customer-centric approach around in-depth analysis on what makes us happy, even publishing a book on it in 2010, titled “Delivering Happiness”.

“Most of the frameworks for happiness conclude that there are four things required: perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness (meaning the depths of relationships) and being part of something bigger than yourself.”

From these tenets, he went on to build a company culture like no other.

This intrigues me for multiple reasons. Firstly, I come from a retail background. Whilst most of my family members studied science, medicine in particular, I took my first retail job while at university in Geneva, in a DVD store. Remember those? I was (proudly) headhunted from my first role to join another independent retailer, known for their specialist service geared at the large local English-speaking community. Good for my language skills. As it turns out, good for me in general.

Retail is in the detail

Elmedia, as it was called, or Elm for short, had a policy of doing their utmost to find titles (books or DVD’s) for their international clientele.

Tucked away in a pretty arcade near the lake, I wasn’t trained with “no is not an answer” so formally, and yet it was essentially a similar mentality. Take the details down, be precise, then go and do your research.

The owners, two strong matriarchs by the names of Sue and Nicole, ran a tight ship. They were as fun and loving as they were exacting in their management style. I learnt the art of quality service is in the detail.

What I enjoyed most was the tracking down of hard-to-get movies. The future owner of Zappos, Amazon, played a pivotal role in my own customer service story, all the way back in 1998 or 1999. Their long tail marketplace model served me well in sourcing exotic or rare titles from faraway countries, while clearly, our clients weren’t online yet.

Meanwhile, enthusiastic and conscientious, I devoured movie after movie; always keen to discover more. I essentially got to know our inventory by heart. Turns out, it’s good to know what you’re selling.

My work ethic

When I left for London, to pursue a music career (this is a story for another day), I took it all with me. I landed, very much by chance, in a corner boutique in Motcomb Street, Knightsbridge, where I was hired to sell deliciously delicate women’s shoes with red soles. It was a good match for my skills and I went from Saturday girl to boutique manager to PR to… for details, best check my LinkedIn.

Thousands of shoe sales later, I had a profound moment of gratitude upon realising that what I learned with Sue and Nicole (and yes, with a little help from Amazon) was not only the basis or backbone of my career: my whole work ethic had been moulded by my experience with them. Strangely enough, I realise that they intuitively knew something that Tony Hsieh did too: control, progress, connectedness, and doing the work for something bigger than themselves - bringing a bit of happiness to their clientele.

I am incredibly thankful to them for teaching me to care about what people want and to try my hardest to make magic happen.

Customer clienteling being on my mind, I called my friends Helen Baynes, Experience Design Consultant (former Director of Customer Experience at Cult Beauty), and Lupe Puerta, founder of the Floorr, to chat about all things customer service.

As I expected, Helen is a big fan of Hsieh and swears by his book. It turns out she too started her stellar career selling women’s shoes. Discover her secret for delivering foolproof customer service right here.

Meanwhile, Lupe also started her career at Harrods. She then went on to Net-a-porter where she headed personal shopping, and then VIP clients relations for both NAP and Mr Porter until last year. She tells me what is key today to deliver great service to the digital consumer.

The way consumers are behaving is changing daily. Shoppers want a personal, warm, human friendly experience; one which makes them feel valued. But they’re also interested in making a difference and are much more empowered to make the right (often sustainable) choices. The fashion industry has certainly had to become much more sophisticated. Given my career path,As always, I'm fascinated by the way this sector has responded to this latest consumer-driven trend and I look forward to seeing what 2021 will bring.