Higher Ed Strategy Blog

What college presidents can learn from Zappos

by Melanie Ho

A version of this article originally appeared in the EAB Daily Briefing authored by Kristin Tyndall.

This past November, I had the fun and distinct privilege of traveling with 26 college presidents and chancellors to tour Zappos, a company famous for delighting both its customers and its employees. What can an online shoe retailer teach us about higher education? That creating a great experience for employees is the first step toward creating a great experience for students.

"Our whole belief is if you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term brand or business will just be a natural byproduct," said Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.

While the term "customer service" can make some campus leaders uncomfortable and isn’t always the right analogy for higher ed, those who can suspend their initial disbelief and embrace discomfort stand to gain three valuable lessons about student and staff engagement from the private sector.

1. Empower employees to "WOW" the students they serve

Often referred to by Hsieh as a "customer service company that just happens to sell shoes," Zappos has built its reputation on customer service. On the other side of every phone call is a representative with no script, sales quota, or time limit—with the authority to make manager-level decisions, such as accepting special-case returns or offering refunds.

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As our world becomes more digital and your students perform more and more of their activities online, consider the power that more personalized interactions have to offer. Ask yourself how your students would stand to benefit if advisors or student success managers had the authority to be more responsive to the challenges their students face right on the spot. Hsiesh notes in his book, Delivering Happiness, that giving front line employees the opportunity to "get the interaction right" during those five to ten minutes in which they have a customer’s undivided attention is a key to long-term customer loyalty. As we think about the increasingly important role that alumni play as "word of mouth" advocates for incoming students, financial supporters, and prospects for new professional and graduate offerings, it behooves us to consider the lasting memories that our interactions create.

2. Connect professional development with organizational improvement

No matter their department or level of seniority, every Zappos employee goes through the same training as call center representatives and spends two weeks working on the front-line taking customer service calls. Beyond that, the company offers in-house life coaches and classes on business skills and functions—encouraging each employee to make one micro-improvement per week that helps Zappos better reflect its core values.

Find those same opportunities to cultivate a greater sense of ownership among your employees that results in them building their career at your college or university. In addition to traditional professional development opportunities, I have seen rotations be eye-opening for faculty, administrators, and staff to better understand key issues and functions that other areas of the institution face. These rotations may range in time commitment and outcome—from spending a year attending budget meetings with the goal of better understanding university finances, to spending a week answering prospective master’s student inquiries with the goal of better understanding their program evaluation criteria. Many of the presidents who traveled with us commented on the true pride that Zappos employees exude as a result of being empowered to make things right.

3. Investments in employee engagement don't need to be costly

Culture-building initiatives at Zappos are relatively low-cost, yet effective. Employees have several channels for recognizing a colleague’s exceptional work. For example, on an internal website, employees can make or grant others' wishes such as tickets to sporting events, pet-sitting services, and even trips to visit a distant relative. They can also nominate a co-worker to receive a small bonus for going the extra mile in their job or express gratitude to colleagues by giving them Zollars—an in-house currency that can be redeemed for things like branded swag and charitable donations.

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Consider starting small with your engagement efforts—something as simple as giving staff members a forum to show appreciation for a colleague. Not every engagement initiative must be a campus-wide effort either. Adapt your approach with certain functions or departments and tailor to their local office culture.

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