Want to Be Like Zappos? Get Insights Directly From the Company

by Katherine Gustafson

2 min read

Zappos is renowned for its open corporate culture and stellar customer service. But following the online retailer’s lead — and building similar best practices into your small business — may be easier said than done.

So, why not seek assistance from Zappos itself? The company’s Zappos Insights department offers constructive advice to entrepreneurs. You can tour Zappos’ headquarters for free, participate in Q&A sessions with Zappos leadership for a cost of between $50 and $250, get resources for continued learning for a monthly membership fee of $39.95, or attend a three-day boot camp for $6,000.

Jon Wolske, culture evangelist for Zappos Insights, cites numerous studies (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4) that show how investing in your company’s culture reduces problems like high turnover, burnout, and safety incidents. It also leads to greater profitability and innovation.

“While culture seems like it’s the touchy-feely stuff, being intentional about your culture — defining and committing to it — can have amazing impact,” Wolske tells the Intuit Small Business Blog.

Business owners often fail to realize that employees will strive to make their jobs fun no matter what management does, he says. You can reap huge benefits by spearheading the effort to build a positive work environment.

“If it’s what people are asking for and what would really make their day better, it’s probably the right thing to do,” Wolske says.

This was the overarching message conveyed to the leadership team of Hagie Manufacturing, a Clarion, Iowa-based manufacturer of corn detasselers and crop sprayers, at an Insights Boot Camp at Zappos’ Las Vegas headquarters. (A staff photo is shown above.)

According to Dave Maxheimer, human resources director at Hagie, his team learned not to focus on profits. “That’s the wrong thing,” he says. “The most important thing is your employees. Making your employees happy will remove roadblocks and end up making you more profits.”

Back in Iowa, the team made some important changes, Maxheimer says. The company drew up official “Hagie Family Values,” hired a full-time training director to nurture talent from within, and instituted flexible scheduling (which is virtually unheard of in the manufacturing sector). The company began allowing casual clothing and, in a popular but inexpensive move, started offering free soda, popcorn, coffee, and cappuccinos.

The company’s margin and profits hit record highs in 2011, 2012, and 2013 — the same years in which the Des Moines Register and WorkplaceDynamics named the company among the top mid-sized Iowa companies to work for.

Maxheimer sees a clear connection: “The farm economy in Iowa is good, but you can’t change margin to that extent.”

He says the positive atmosphere in the company is palpable, which makes customers just as happy as it makes workers. “When customers come in, they say they feel the warmth and happiness of the employees,” Maxheimer says.

The secret to inspiring such warm feelings is treating employees like unique individuals and competent professionals, Wolske says. “When you give people the freedom to be themselves and let them do the job they’ve been hired for, they do an amazing job at it.”

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