“Culture Building” — The New “Team Building” Strategy

By Gina Trimarco

This is Part 1 of a series about: “What I Learned at Zappos Culture Camp” and originally posted on the Pivot10 Results website.

Successful companies are companies that give amazing service to their customers through the assistance of happy and empowered employees, right? Seems simple enough in theory but so many businesses struggle with this winning combination. And that alone is great for companies like ours that provide training and development in customer service, sales and leadership. Again, in theory when companies need our help and are willing to invest the time and money to do it “right”. Our definition of “doing it right” is having a strategic plan for training initiatives to ensure sustainability, scalability and return on investment. That’s where it all seems to fall apart for many — they have broken issues (broken people, actually) and rush to repair them as quickly as possible without too much attention to detail.

Prospective clients call us often, asking about teambuilding, customer service, leadership and sales training. Most times they want to incorporate a two or three-hour training into and annual meeting or conference. They have good intentions to give their employees this opportunity and it makes them look like they care about employee development. And then everyone goes back to their offices and forgets to apply what they learned. It’s an ugly cycle and thus training gets cut from budgets before most other line items.

I became determined to change how we help companies beyond what I call the “one-off” … the one three-hour session that becomes the entire training for the year for an entire team. In so many sales conversations over the past few years I’ve learned that the problems are bigger than poor customer service, declining sales and ineffective middle managers. And it’s really been the ill-equipped middle managers and employees who have taught me this by sharing their frustrations. Their frustrations of lack of empowerment and lack of understanding of company purpose and vision … and what’s in it for them besides a paycheck. My determination to make a bigger impact for our clients motivated me to study successful and best-places-to work companies. One of those companies is Zappos.com.

One day while preparing a presentation about shifting culture, I googled “culture” and “core values” and at the top of the search Zappos.com appeared with an article about their core values and mission. Leave it to googling to send me down a rabbit hole where I discovered Zappos Insights, a separate division that serves companies that want to change their own cultures through better employee recruitment, onboarding and training. Brilliantly they found a way to monetize and leverage their “secret sauce”. Zappos.com CEO saw an opportunity to generate revenue while serving the business community.

Next thing I know I’m signing up for a three-day “Culture Camp” at Zappos.com headquarters in Las Vegas to get an inside look of how they magically give amazing customer service. The type of “raving fan” service that when you say their name someone almost always says “OMG. I love Zappos.”

This blog is the first in a series about my experience at Zappos Insight’s Culture Camp. While it was only three days I feel like I got a year’s college education in that short, yet long feeling, amount of time. It’s taken me a few weeks to actually digest it all so I can now share it. I struggled with how to frame this series and where to begin and finally I decided to just “improvise” my thoughts and let it flow naturally and organically (my usual style). Are you ready?

What Stood Out Most During My Time At Zappos …

Culture, Culture, Culture — In a Q&A session with CEO Tony Hsieh and Fred Mossler one of them said

“Bring it back to values and let culture develop around the values.”

They live by the Four Ps of Culture:

1) People — to build trust and connections

2) Purpose — being a company of purpose, not just profits

3) Passion — to recognize and reward employees and fellow co-workers

4) Power — to self-organize and empower employees to do what they think is best (Holacracy management philosophy)

I’ll expand on these areas throughout the upcoming blog series. Note that Fred Mossler exited the company in June, per Fortune Magazine, but continues to be involved with other projects with Tony, specifically the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas.

Family Feeling — In a really short amount of time my fellow Culture Campers and I became part of the Zappos family. Me and 25 other professionals from all over the world (representatives of Australia, Russia, Mexico, England and Guatemala, along with many Americans). Pretty cool to meet so many companies in search of the meaning of culture (and willing to pay $6,000 for that search). The Zappos team instantly made us feel special, first by “pushing” food on us constantly. They have an actual “food pusher” to make sure everyone ate enough. This might seem small and insignificant, but one thing I learned years ago is that people love to be fed. It’s the quickest and easiest way to connect them as a group.

More importantly EVERY employee I interacted with seemed genuinely happy and loving their jobs and the culture. Granted they were on their best behavior for three days with visitors on campus, but I’m a good read of people. The energy was intoxicating. By the end of my three days I was hoping for a job offer and didn’t want to leave!

Commitment & Consistency — Zappos has not innovated a new way of business at all when it comes to people. Their practices for recruiting, hiring, training and customer service are not new ideas. They even admit this. CEO Tony Hsieh reads about and studies others’ business practices, which runs contrary to his stories about his early college years. They are certified with Simon Sinek on teaching others how to find purpose, as well as users of Holacracy. The way they do things, in my opinion, is old school (in a good way) — be good to your employees and give good customer service.

The difference for Zappos is that they commit to this idea and process and remain consistent with execution. This is where most companies fail. When I came back from Culture Camp, I shared my experience with several business owners. Many of the responses were:

“Well, good for them, but in the real business world that’s not possible.”

Um, it is possible because they’re doing it. They’ve dedicated time, money and resources to doing it and it pays off … in time. That’s the key here. So many companies are focused on instant gratification and results and lack the patience to reap what they sow. Commitment is a practice that leads to long term profitability.

Core Values, Mission & Empowerment — This was my biggest take away. Zappos employees live and breathe by the company’s core values. Seriously, it’s almost spooky how every employee I interacted with could recite all 10 core values. They are train from the very beginning on making decisions based on the company’s core values and mission. Everything must connect back to things like “Create Fun & A Little Weirdness” or “Embrace & Drive Change”.

When it comes to employee empowerment, they eat it for breakfast … and by the way, breakfast is free for employees! They are taught early on to self-manage and make “ask-for-forgiveness-later” decisions that ensure the best customer experience. And it’s true. I witnessed it while shadowing a Customer Service Loyalty Team Member while she answered calls from customers.

Why should you care about this kind of stuff?

The bottom line is that the culture focus is pretty simple — invest in your people, invest in your customers and invest in your community. In addition to taking care of their employees and customers, they invest in their community, such as redeveloping downtown Las Vegas by investing in small businesses.

So, what’s the return on your investment in culture?

For Zappos they say it’s not right away but eventually it leads to repeat customers and increased sales. They also don’t spend money on marketing. They regard their investment in culture and customer service as a brand and marketing expense that creates word-of-mouth traction. Their investment in culture continues to return big dividends.

What are you doing to be a Culture Builder instead of a Culture Killer?

We have tools to help you build and evolve. Reach out to me to learn more at gina@pivot10results.com.

If you’re feeling stuck, it’s time to pivot!

-Gina

P.S. Part 2 of this series coming next week is “The Ask-For-Forgiveness-Later Empowerment Strategy”

ABOUT THE POST AUTHOR

Gina Trimarco, Chief Results Officer, knows how to pivot to profits from problems and find joy through the process. Her philosophy is that performance pays and people need to be trained to perform on the stage of business to achieve results.

Gina successfully pivoted her coaching firm, Gina & Company, into the new Pivot10 Results, a training and development company that helps business teams to quickly adapt their communications and engagement skills in leadership, customer and sales to achieve results by providing them experiential learning tools and strategies.