“Brett, Tony Hsieh died,” Blossom said to me.
“What?” I was just waking up, and this news wasn’t registering with me.
“Tony Hsieh died. I know you really liked him,” my wife said to me.
“How?” I asked.
“The house he was staying at caught fire, and he died.”
I took a big sigh, and then I said, “He was so young, not even 50 I bet.”
“He was 46,” Blossom said to me.
“That’s so sad,” I said.
I started reflecting on Tony Hsieh, and his impact on me. I never met Tony, but he had a huge affect on how I thought about managing customer relationships.
The first time I became aware of Tony, I was flying on American Airlines to Chicago. I was bored, so I picked up the copy of American Airlines magazine, American Way, that was in the seatback in front of me. As I thumbed through the magazine, I found an article about Hsieh and his company, Zappos.
The article focused on how Hsieh had made Zappos a dominant seller of shoes online through a unique focus on customer service. I was intrigued, so I bought Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness.
You keep your customers by giving them an insanely great experience.
In the weeks following Tony Hsieh’s untimely death, more information started coming out about how he died. Apparently, Hsieh, despite all his success, had been depressed.
A New York Times article about Hsieh’s death didn’t clarify things. He had been fighting with his girlfriend, there was a propane lighter Hsieh had disassembled that might have caused the fire, or perhaps it was the candles that Hsieh liked to have lit.
As I read the article, all I could think was, “How could someone who wanted to deliver happiness to his customers be so sad?”
Yet, delivering happiness is what Hsieh did.
Hsieh, at least to me, reinvented customer service. He showed me a much more evolved, better way to support your customers.
Hsieh’s realization was to give the women and men that manned Zappos’ customer support team more autonomy and authority than the scripted, follow the rules, customer support that every company previously practiced.
Gone was the tightly scripted customer support of the past. Hsieh replaced it with giving customers exactly what they wanted.
The measurement of success for customer service changed from how quickly you could answer calls, to how happy you could make your customers. I loved reading the stories Hsieh told of Zappos customer support people spending hours with customers.
To quote another Silicon Valley icon, Steve Jobs, Hsieh was giving his customers an “insanely great” experience.
I wondered how I could incorporate Hsieh’s insights into my company’s customer service organization?
Your customer support team are your customer ambassadors.
Every company I had worked for, starting with Mobil Oil when I was seventeen, had scripts for the customer support people, in my case the gas station attendant, to follow. At Mobil, you followed the script or you were fired.
I hated the script we had to follow at Mobil.
At Mobil, we were supposed to tap on the customer’s hood, so they would open the hood. Then we could check the oil and (hopefully) show the customer they were low on motor oil, so we could sell them oil.
I hated that script because it felt so unnatural (and rude) to be tapping on someone’s hood. Why not just ask them if they would like their oil checked?
The reason is obvious of course. Mobil management thought, “We don’t want to give customers a choice because they might choose the wrong one.”
Even though everyone I worked with over the years hated these customer support scripts, the scripts kept reappearing. When I joined Maxim, ten years after my Mobil Oil experience, the customer support team was yet again scripted.
And, now that I was in management, I became a proponent of the script. God help anyone that didn’t follow that script!
However, Hsieh made me rethink everything. So, now that I was CEO of my own company, reading Delivering Happiness, I realized that there was a better way.
I told our customer support team that they were free to handle each customer as they saw fit. There would be no scripts, and there would be no goals about how many calls someone did. The only measurement would be customer satisfaction.
The only guidance we gave the team was to ask for help if they felt they needed help.
We would audit and review the customer support team’s decisions on a weekly basis after the fact.
The result was a happy customer support team that was able to quickly make decisions and solve customer problems. Just as importantly, our customers loved the support they were getting.
The bottom line was customer support was one of the reasons we rarely lost a customer.
Great customer support needs a great well made product to sell.
“Did you every meet him (Hsieh)?” Blossom asked me.
“No, I never did. But one of the CEOs I work with pitched him about investing in his company. He (Hsieh) spent a lot of time with them, but he ended up passing.
“What a shame (that Hsieh was dead),” I said.
As much as Hsieh influenced my thinking, and, as much as I believe in the power of customer support, you can’t win with just great support. You need a great product to sell too.
If you have a great product, with great quality, properly priced, and your customer support delivers happiness, then your company will be unstoppable.
That’s the lesson.
So, thank you, Tony. I am sad thinking about you, but nevertheless, thank you. You helped me and countless other entrepreneurs, owners, CEOs, and customer support people deliver happiness to our customers.
You will be missed, but never forgotten.
For another take on great customer support, read: What Can You Learn From A Little Boy And A LEGO?