January 13, 2020

’We’re Simply Humans in Business’: A New Book From Zappos Employees Explores ’Leading With Your Heart’


Few companies have the kind of cachet that Zappos has when it comes to matters of employee satisfaction. Touted as “the happiness business” and more of a “mission” than a company, Zappos is practically a byword for engaged company culture in the business press.

But what do actual Zappos employees think of it all?

A new book, The Power of WOW: How to Electrify Your Work and Your Life by Putting Service Firsthelps answer that question. A collaborative effort from 20+ Zappos employees and New York Times best-selling author Mark DagostinoThe Power of WOW weaves together multiple perspectives into what it’s like to work for the eCommerce powerhouse. The message: Believe the hype.

Below, Zappos employees and Power of WOW contributors Kelly Smith (experimental brand marketing manager, brand strategy) and Derrin Hawkins (art director) talk with Recruiter.com about what it was like working on the book, what the “WOW” really is, and some of the unlikely stories of Zappos employees going above and beyond for customers.

RC: I want to first bring up that title: What is the “power of wow”?

Kelly Smith and Derrin Hawkins: We always say that Zappos is a customer service company that happens to sell ______. In our case, we fill that blank with shoes, clothing, and accessories. Often, a business’s priority is its bottom-line product or service that it offers. Everything else becomes secondary and, ultimately, a side effect.

For Zappos, it’s very much the opposite. Our first core value (out of 10) is to “Deliver WOW through service.” Delivering WOW — or essentially, service — is our top priority. Not just service to our customers, but also service to our employees. The rest naturally follows. Because our customers’ happiness is always top of mind, this book is an answer to that.

Ever since our CEO Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness, came out nearly a decade ago, our customers have been aching to learn more about Zappos and our inner workings. They have taken tours, sent countless emails with questions about our business and culture, and brought their businesses to our culture camps. Providing WOW through service has been a part of the Zappos DNA from the beginning, and this book allows us to show what we’ve gone through to continue to deliver that WOW. It allows us to show, through the voice of our employees, that WOW is not a constant bar, but a constant evolution.

Instead of having solely Tony write this book, we decided to have more than 22 employees from various parts of the company who are living and breathing the culture share their personal perspectives and lessons. Tony also sat down and added colorful insights to the book, which makes it even more special.

The Power of WowThere’s a lot of talk of B2B, B2C, etc., that, personally, starts to feel sterile in the business world. At the end of the day, it’s much simpler than any acronym. We are simply just humans in business trying our best to serve other humans in the world by doing what’s right and doing what’s good.

We, of course, aren’t perfect, and we aren’t saying that the way we’re doing it will work for everyone else. But for us, we’ve found that having this service-first mindset has helped us find strength in our business and sustain our resilience as we grow. Leading with your heart can be risky and unnatural, at first, but in the end it’s totally worth it. That’s the power of WOW.

RC: The book has a really interesting structure that you don’t often see: Instead of a single author, it’s a collaborative work between a number of Zappos employees. What was it like working on the book? And how do you think this structure reflects Zappos’ culture as an organization?

KS & DH: It was incredible having the opportunity to be part of the process and learn about all of the hard work that goes into a book. It truly takes a village, even if it’s just one author.

But in our case, we had more than 22 employees from various parts of the company share their stories and perspectives. In order to weave those stories together into a narrative that our readers can act on, we were excited to work with Mark Dagostino (who is insanely talented). We’ve known some of these fellow Zapponians for a long time and had never heard about their journeys in this way, so it was extremely inspiring to be a part of that.

This book is a pure example of our self-organized culture and organization. Having that autonomy and trust on not just this project, but many other projects at Zappos, is incredibly humbling and has allowed so many employees and teams to thrive in our organization. Our very own CEO empowers each and every one of us to make this company better without dictating exactly what that looks like. The fact that he still took time to sit down and read through this book to add his own color and insight was amazing. We’ve never seen a business book like this before, and it’s a great example of who we are as a company.

RC: Kelly, I want to highlight something you write in the book: “I like to think of responsibility as ‘response-ability.'” Could you say more about what that means and what that looks like in action at Zappos?

KS & DH: Being a human in this world requires a constant balance of sensing and responding: sensing a problem and then responding with a solution. We do it on a daily basis when we are making decisions — from simple problems to very complex ones. It takes time to harness it, to make it deliberate, and to then turn it into a habit. That’s something we regularly see happening here at Zappos.

Take the story about Operation Red Shoes in the first chapter. It could’ve easily been a simple problem. Our customer, Susan Walker, needed a certain number of shoes for a certain situation. It could’ve been an easy “sent, done, and on to the next customer” situation.

However, our Zapponian, Teri McNally, had the response-ability to dig a little deeper and uncover even more. She was merely being one human sensing the needs and emotions of another human. What started as a deceivingly simple phone call led to the creation of a nonprofit organization — and most importantly, a lifelong friendship between Susan and Teri.

Response-ability and responsibility are interconnected. It’s about our responsibility to be humans in business. In a very black-and-white sense, it’s easy to come up with quick ways to solve for simple problems, but sometimes there are layers to problems that only humans can uncover. It’s hard to say it without sounding cheesy, but it truly is our responsibility to exercise that response-ability.

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RC: I was really taken with the story Jesse Juhala tells, about the lengths to which Zappos employees went when a customer’s house burned down. It’s not a typical response, and many companies would have stopped at free boots (if they even got that far). What does such a story tell us about Zappos’ view of the role of business in the world?

KS & DH: As more and more companies move into the eCommerce world, it’s more important than ever to be humans in business. Companies are losing the face-to-face and tangible interactions that brick-and-mortar companies still have. As technology chases this idea of efficiency and becoming more automatic, eCommerce companies risk losing a bit of their humanness within that. This story is one of many examples that are also in the book that prove the necessity of doing the right thing — not for glory, not for marketing, not for anything else but purely doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

RC: If you could sum it all up, what lessons are you hoping people take away from this book?

KS & DH: This book is filled with so many inspiring takeaways and reveals, and because of that, there’s something in it for everyone — whether you’re a customer, a business or thought leader, or just someone who happened to randomly pick up this book because it sounded intriguing.

We want this book to be a service to the reader because service is what we’re all about. Our hope is that someone who reads this will find a nugget (or more) of inspiration or knowledge that they are then able to incorporate into their personal or professional lives in a positive way.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.