Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of Zappos, died the other day. His death reminded me of the insights I gained after hearing him speak and touring the Zappos headquarters almost a decade ago — in January 2011.
I got to hear Hsieh speak about the secrets behind the success of his company while attending Tony Robbins’ Business Mastery event in Las Vegas,. A few days later, I toured Zappos’ headquarters with several friends from the event. Both experiences created a lasting impression on me.
The topic of Hsieh’s talk was about how Zappos created “Raving Fan Clients,” one of the core drivers of business success that Tony Robbins teaches at Business Mastery.
Although we might use the phrase “create raving fan clients,” “create” is not really the best word. Raving Fan Clients aren’t so much created as they are nurtured. It’s a process that happens over time.
The Secret to Zappos’ Success
My takeaway from Hsieh’s talk, and from my subsequent visit to Zappos headquarters, was that what set Zappos apart from other companies was not its liberal shipping and return policies that took the risk out of buying shoes over the internet (at a time when this was not the norm), the size and breadth of its inventory, or strategies to minimize hold times for customer service calls.
Although those tangible and quantifiable metrics surely contributed, they wouldn’t have been enough on their own.
What set Zappos apart was the quality of the support and service that employees delivered to customers when those customers called.
The big secret to nurturing raving fan clients is to nurture “raving fan employees” who will deliver the type customer service that will make customers feel cared for and nurtured.
And the secret to nurturing raving fan employees is to create a culture in which those employees feel nourished and supported — where they can thrive.
Hsieh Understood Human Nature
This isn’t rocket science. It’s a fundamental principle of human behavior.
We treat others as we are treated. When we feel treated well, we feel good, and we spread those good feelings to others. And when we aren’t, we don’t.
Hsieh understood this fundamental principle of human nature: we all want to feel seen, heard, and fully expressed.
He understood that when you create a space where people feel supported and nurtured, where they feel safe to bring all of themselves to what they do, those people will thrive.
And in a culture set up for people to thrive, everything else — netter ideas, extraordinary customer service, productivity, profits — will take care of itself.
Beyond Customer Service
This principle doesn’t apply only to customer service employees. Whether the work is sales, customer service, teaching, flying airplanes, creating art, writing legal briefs, caring for the sick, negotiating deals, coaching, consulting, or anything else — what makes us most effective, and therefore most productive, is when we feel supported, nurtured, and safe in expressing ourselves.
In fear, we contract, turning our focus inward. We see others as separate from us, we put up barriers, we lose touch with empathy and compassion, and are unable to hold space for others. In contracted states, we cannot access our highest wisdom and creativity and we struggle to implement ideas, if we even access our ideas.
On the other hand, when our foundational needs of safety and security are met, when we feel supported and cared for, we are able to open to others. We can hear what isn’t expressly articulated, see problems beneath the surface, give generously, and access the deep well of our potential.
Stability fosters ability.
It’s common sense, and a fundamental tenet of human behavior that is rooted in our biology.
The Guiding Ethos: Create Space For Your Best Work
The guiding ethos, as Hsieh told the New Yorker in 2009, was:
What kind of company can we create where we all want to be there, including me? How can we create such a great environment, where employees get so much out of it that they would do it for free?
In other words, “how do we create space for our best work?“
That “space” is both external and internal: it’s the environment around you as well as how you feel about your work and the mission you are serving.
Environment is more potent that willpower.
Hsieh understood that if you foster an environment where people feel safe and supported, they will be happy to show up to work and they will thrive. Employees who are thriving will produce better quality work.
Focus on what supports you and those who work with and for you in thriving and the rest will take care of itself.