Zappos: Rhetoric and Reality

Lest I be misunderstood, let me state for the record that I love Zappos. I admire, perhaps even envy them. And I like shoes as much as the next guy.

When companies attain preeminence, it is usually due to a convergence of factors. Surely Zappos is no exception. Being early to the game helped; with a strong, consistently fashionable offering, they established a relevant brand for upscale shoppers. Their adeptness at removing barriers to purchase and delivering legendary customer service play a big role. So do wide selections, good web design, easy navigation, solid back-end management, a generous return policy, reader-friendly copy, favorable word of mouth, sound capitalization, old-fashioned elbow grease and more. And not to be overlooked, though no one cares to admit their part in any success, are the twins of fortuity generally known as Luck and Timing.

It makes for an arguably fine recipe for any aspiring internet startup. The trouble is, once a company becomes a runaway success and reporters start showing up to ask how they did it, the above description seems so … so … banal. What reporters want to write, readers want to read, and, conveniently, business leaders want to dish up is self-congratulatory rhetoric dressed up as revolutionary thinking. Ironically, the result tends to be equally banal, often a mere recycling of In Search of Excellence-style flatulence. Yet in some sort of bizarre social contract, interviewer, interviewee and reader agree to treat the flatulence as new and instructive.

So it is that companies like Zappos come to believe, and would have us believe, too, that it was their strict adherence to cool-sounding values that rocketed them to success, and that your own strict adherence to like values will inevitably rocket you there, too.

At first glance, the values Zappos parades on its website and that reporters eagerly gush about appear compelling. Who can argue with lofty ideals like Deliver WOW Through Service, Embrace and Drive Change, Create Fun and A Little Weirdness, Be Adventurous, Pursue Growth and Learning, Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication, Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit, Do More With Less, Be Passionate and Determined, and Be Humble?

But let’s step back from the excitement for a moment. Exactly how does one implement and measure WOW? How about passion and weirdness? (For that matter, how do you reconcile an admonition to be humble with the blatant braggadocio of running self-aggrandizing, Are-We-Cool-or-What standards all over your website?) These are not standards. Standards are measurable. These are slogans designed to promote, not to explain.

Of course, their very magic and elusiveness explain why many managers eagerly embrace them. No one can prove that you do not adhere to what cannot be measured. Nor can anyone disprove their effectiveness. If a company succeeds, credit the “standards.” If it fails, claim that the “standards” would have worked if only the company had truly committed to them.

Zappos and other successful interactive companies deserve praise and admiration for their success. But it’s important not to discard the nitty-gritty for sexy sounding platitudes.

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