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Delivering Happiness the Zappos Way

Business Week

- Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Delivering Happiness the Zappos Way

How the footwear e-tailer's CEO, Tony Hsieh, builds a brand through public speaking

By Carmine Gallo

"Happiness in a box." That's how one customer described the feeling of receiving her shoe order from online retailer

Much has been written about how Zappos cultivates a culture dedicated to exceptional customer service (it famously offers $2,000 to employees who quit during its mandatory four-week training program for new hires, although few people take the offer). What's less known about Zappos is just how much time founder and CEO Tony Hsieh has dedicated to spreading the Zappos gospel to most anyone who will listen.

During a recent interview, Hsieh told me he gives anywhere from one to four presentations a week, speaking at a variety of conferences and "pretty much anything" in Las Vegas (the company is based in the Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev.). According to Hsieh, entrepreneurs and business owners should give as many public presentations as possible to support and help build the brand. "It's one thing to read about your company, but when a customer can associate it with an actual person, it creates a deeper, more meaningful connection to the brand," Hsieh told me. Here are Hsieh's three tips to building a brand through public speaking:

•Speak about topics you're passionate about. Although Hsieh started an online shoe retailer, he's most passionate about customer service, corporate culture, and happiness. Yes, happiness. "Tony, what does happiness have to do with selling shoes?" I asked. "At Zappos, our higher purpose is delivering happiness," said Hsieh. "Whether it's the happiness our customers receive when they get a new pair of shoes or the perfect piece of clothing, or the happiness they get when dealing with a friendly customer rep over the phone, or the happiness our employees feel about being a part of a culture that celebrates their individuality, these are all ways we bring happiness to people's lives."

Speaking about a topic he's passionate about, Hsieh engages his audiences and teaches them something new in the process. In a 55-slide PowerPoint deck, Hsieh devotes no more than five slides to a corporate discussion of Zappos data. The rest is dedicated to explaining how Zappos achieved its success ($1 billion in gross sales in 2008) and, most important, what the audience can learn from the Zappos story.

•Tell personal stories. Hsieh begins and ends every presentation with stories that reinforce his themes of happiness, service, and culture. He typically kicks off his presentations with the story of working at a company he founded and finding that, once it had grown to a hundred people, he dreaded going to work because it wasn't fun anymore—the company had stopped hiring people based on how well they fit the culture. That story serves as a bridge into a discussion of why culture is so important to him today.

Hsieh likes to end his presentation with what he calls his pizza story. One night, he and some vendors returned to a hotel room late. Someone in the group was craving pizza and was told room service had ended. As a joke, Hsieh suggested calling Zappos. You can probably guess the end of the story—even though Zappos doesn't sell pizza, the customer service rep found a list of local pizza places that would deliver to the hotel. It's a fun story that seriously reinforces Hsieh's theme of customer service.

•Don't "sell" your product. Hsieh's goal in a presentation is not to sell shoes; it's to inspire his audience. Inspire them to do what? I asked Hsieh. "Inspired to provide better customer service, inspired to improve your corporate culture, inspired to learn more about the science of happiness," Hsieh responded. Most presenters fail to make the distinction between selling and inspiring. According to Hsieh, a brand is a shortcut to emotions. Decide what emotion you want your brand to stand for. Hsieh's presentations hardly touch on the subject of e-commerce, and neither do his blog or Tweeter posts. Instead, he takes every opportunity to write and speak on customer service, culture, and happiness. "Ultimately, it causes people to be more attached to the brand and the company. You'd much rather support a company that inspires you than one that doesn't," says Hsieh.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for some of the world's most admired brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book Fire Them Up! (John Wiley & Sons

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