I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Even a big business can act small: How Zappos knocked my socks off

My mom had some recent, harsh medical treatments which have left her feet numb, and sensitive to pressure. Over the last several months her choice of tolerable footwear from her closet steadily boiled down to one clunky pair of Crocs.   Yet it still hurt so much to walk on those hard-soled shoes, that she couldn’t get out of her apartment to shop for new footwear.  She became nearly housebound.

So, I asked her to describe what style of shoes she guessed would work.  (Appearance, closures, comfort features) I went on the Zappos site and ordered six likely candidates.  They arrived promptly and two pair hit the target.

Since my mom doesn’t use her computer right now (her hands are also numb, making it hard to type), she called Zappos to get instructions on returning the shoes she didn’t want to keep.    Being a friendly Midwesterner, one thing led to another, and before she knew it she’d had a long, warm conversation with the Zappo’s employee.  She learned that the Zappos person’s father had similar neurological effects from diabetes, my mom revealed she was widowed and that my dad also died of diabetes-related issues, and the Zappos  person gently inquired about my mom’s current health battles.  The Zappos person ended the call with a promise to pray for my mom.

My mom called me to relay the news, and I could hear the smile on her face 600 miles away.

Two days later, she called again, saying that the “lovely” Zappos person had sent her an enormous bouquet of lilies and roses, to let her know she was thinking of her.

bouquet-ex

My sister emailed the company to thank Zappos (which is now not  simply a “company”, but a group of people to my family) for taking such good care of my Mom.

Two days later, my mom, sister, and I were contacted and told we are now “Zappos VIP members,” which entitles us to free expedited shipping on all our orders.

My sister vows to buy every pair of shoes, from now on, from Zappos.

I’ve read a lot about  the Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh’s vision for a company full of people who act like individuals, not policy-controlled robots.   I’ve seen their Facebook fan page posts about anything from their dogs to celebrity visits to headquarters.  I’ve seen their employee videos about products in which their natural, unscripted delivery, and totally average looking appearances, make me trust them.

But this bouquet of flowers delivered on the vision.  It showed me Tony’s confidence in his employees and himself, to do the right thing.  To be big, while acting small.  Wow.

27 Responses to “Even a big business can act small: How Zappos knocked my socks off”

  1. Jen

    Jules- Thank you for sharing this story. My eyes welled up with tears. It reminds us all to stop and listen and to remember that the little things can make a difference. I love Zappos even more!

    Reply
  2. Dan Weinreb

    That’s an amazing story.

    My wife has diabetes, so we know quite a lot about it. We knew someone from folk dancing who had so much loss of sensation in her feet that she damaged them severely and is now confined to a wheelchair; the problem can be very serious. I’m glad your Mom has good shoes now and I hope she takes care and does great!

    My wife has also used Zappos extensively. While we don’t have any exceptional stories like this one, her experience has been, like that of so many others, that Zappos does a great job with customer service.

    When Amazon bought Zappos in June, I heard people question whether Zappos would keep their customer support policy and culture. My own speculation is that they will. Lots of corporate acquirers would think “cut costs”, and no doubt would gradually degrade the customer service and spoil everything. But over the years, Amazon has displayed a lot more intelligence than the average company. I think they understand that cutting back on customer service would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. So I’m optimistic.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Me too Dan. I believe businesses with personality will be in the continual ascent in the next decade or more. Amazon succeeded on execution and relentless customer focus around automated service. This is the next wave, as demonstrated by Zappos.

      Reply
  3. Stephanie C.

    Hi Jules!
    Thank you so much for your kind words. I am very lucky that I am able to work at such a wonderful place. We love our customer’s and we couldn’t be successful without you. We are so very glad that your Mom has some new shoes to wear and we will keep her in our thoughts. Thank you for being our customer and we look forward to hearing from you in the future!
    Stephanie C.
    Customer Loyalty Team
    Zappos.com

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Stephanie…I feel like I almost know you. Living so far from my mom, it is hard to help her with the day to day challenges. Your actions are more meaningful than you probably even realize. I really believe that in single thoughtful acts like yours, we can markedly improve modern existence. You sure did for my mom.

      Reply
  4. Sara

    The kindness of strangers….. Wow!
    It always overwhelms me and happens when I least expect it. You just re-charged my HOPE canister, Jules and Stephanie! Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Jeff Bennett

    That is a wonderful story. We have also had great customer experiences with Zappos but this is great to hear.

    I have long felt that the great opportunity for eCommerce is combining the efficiencies and scale the Internet brings and delivered the old LLBean way – friendly, courteous, standing behind the product. Or as you say Jules, “acting small wile being big.” It can be done if the culture and policies of the comapny enable it. Zappos obviously proves this with your story.

    Hope your Mom enjoys the shooes…and the flowers!

    Reply
  6. Tony Hsieh - CEO Zappos.com

    Hi Jules –

    I’m sitting at the airport and just read your tweet: “My Zappos story has taken on a life of its own. I have no idea where all the readers are coming from”

    FYI, your blog post has been making its way around our office. Also, I’ve sent it off to a few people, including the editor for the book I’m working on (“Delivering Happiness”), to see if he thought it was something we might be able to include in the book.

    Thanks for all your support! 🙂

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Tony,

      How nice to hear from you and thanks for explaining the mystery. On one hand, I thought your team might be sharing the post (and thus all the traffic to my blog) and then on the other hand I thought, “Zappos people must get this kind of feedback all the time. My post can’t be all that unusual.” In the end, I am delighted to see that no matter how much good karma you create at Zappos, you don’t get complacent about it.

      I’ll be happy to share this story if it helps your book. I think the next big trend in building a competitive business is being human. It’s harder than it looks, and your team makes it look easy– but it takes great leadership.

      Reply
  7. Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com

    Jules,
    A very touching story that has a lot of teachable content in it. I have been pondering on and writing an article about the trend I am seeing – building great businesses and customer loyalty by simply educating and trusting your people to do what is the best for the customer and the company. With all the garbage out there stating we should have our businesses rely on freelancers and other mercenaries instead of our own dedicated people, it is good to see further proof how passionate employees can create dedication to the brand no PR or ad agency could ever build.

    Reply
  8. Lisa Knittel

    When I posted about mom’s experience on facebook, I also received an unusual amounts of replies from people, and I can say across the board everyone who commented had such positive things to say about Zappos. When I spoke about it at work to the guys who work for me, they all chimed in about loving Zappos. I found this even more unusual that they would have such strong positive feelings about a shopping website b/c I can barely get them to run to the local grocery store for potlucks. It appears that Zappos is one of those companies that has universal appeal.

    Reply
  9. Will Schwalbe

    Hi! I’m Tony Hsieh’s editor and he sent me the link and I just read the story and all these great comments. And it brought tears to my eyes, too. So, first, yes, this will definitely be in the book! It’s a wonderful story and illustrates why I’m so proud and delighted to be working with Tony and helping spread the great Zappos story and philosophy. And second, just wanted to say that I’m thinking of your mom and wishing her all the best with her health challenges.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Hi Will. This is becoming a little online party! It must be a privilege to work with Tony on this story. This book is meaningful work, and I’m happy to chime in with a useful story.

      Thanks for the good wishes–I’ll tell my mom. I spoke with her last night before you, Tony, and others commented. She’ll get a kick out of being the catalyst for all this.

      Reply
  10. Wendy

    Jules — thanks for such a touching story. It is those little moments that can take your breath away.
    Tony — thanks for taking the time to write back. Very graceful.
    Wendy

    Reply
  11. Kelly Vidovic

    Jules,

    Sunday was a rainy, lazy morning for me. I had the luxury of lying in bed listening to the rain and didn’t need to get up early for church.

    I rolled over around 10 am and checked emails on my phone. I clicked on the ones I thought would not require too much thinking or energy. I picked your email to read and started crying and thinking.

    I cried because acts of kindness and compassion touch me so deeply. I thought about you as a daughter, your mom, her pain, her need, and how the virtual touch of a stranger changed her world.

    I thought about how Tony encourages his team to act in kindness, love, compassion, and gentleness, how that IS doing the right thing in business. I reflected on my own business and this tender act of love from a Zappos employee to a virtual stranger affirmed how giving to and caring for others is not only the right way but the ONLY way to act regardless of the situation and circumstances.

    I read a brief article on Tony’s business philosophy a couple of months ago in Fast Company and it has stayed with me. I remembered thinking, “It’s uplifting to know that there are CEOs out there who still believe that love – real love – for others is the strongest foundation for a business model. It give me hope that my business can make a difference in the lives of others.”

    Jules, thank you for sharing this story. Tony, thank you for believing in people’s goodness and keeping compassion in the mosh pit of ‘business as usual.’ And, Stephanie, wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

    I’m a shoe nut and I am going to make a concerted effort to only buy shoes from Zappos from here on out. I have purchased a few pair in the past and they arrived promptly, in great condition, and will be an even greater joy on my feet after reading this story.

    Bless you all,

    Kelly

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Kelly, It was lovely of you to share your Sunday morning experience. I am touched that this post meant so much to you. Yes, supporting Zappos seems like the best show of appreciation for this beautiful act of kindness.

      Reply
  12. Dennis Knittel

    I’m Jules and Lisa brother and too am touched by how such a simple gerture created such a positive impact on my mom and now family. I have a friend who is the editor of a fantastic magazine that I submitted as a possible piece for a future issue. Passing this forward is just natural.
    http://www.positiveimpactmagazine.com

    Reply
  13. Molly Cuffe, SmartWool

    Hi Jules,

    I just read your blog and all of these amazing follow-up posts. What a wonderful and touching story. Truly, Zappos is a company that embodies customer service at every level of the company. They set a great example for teh rest of us.

    I work for SmartWool, a merino wool based apparel and socks company. I’m not sure how much you know about Merino wool, but it is a wonderful fiber that is naturally anti-microbial, so the feet stay warm, dry and naturally odor-free. We have many people who swear by our socks; many of whom have issues with their feet – circulation, swelling, or simply cold toes.

    We recently came out with a new soft-top, non-binding sock. The sock was created with people like your mother in mind. I think they would be great for her. I’d love for her to try these socks in hopes that her feet will be even more comfortable in her new shoes.

    If you’re interested, please email me your mother’s address and I’ll get some in the mail for her.

    Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful story.

    Molly

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Hi Molly,

      OK. BIG smile on my face. I know my mom will be amazed and delighted that a perfect stranger wants to send her some inventive socks that could make her more comfortable. I am already a big SmartWool fan–and moreso now. You make my favorite hiking socks, for sure. (I think you are great at stripes, too. I’m really picky about stripes. SmartWool achieves “Paul Smith status” in that regard, quite often. It’s a feat.) Really interested to see how your soft-top sock helps my mom. Emailing you now….

      Have a great weekend!

      Jules

      Reply
      • julespieri

        Molly, my mom got the socks two days ago and she is thrilled. I guess her sock inventory had gotten as bad as her shoe supply, unbeknownst to me. (Mothers are the worst at taking care of themselves!) Thank you. She is testing them out. I will see her next month and check them out myself.

  14. sue knittel

    Molly Cuffe – Smartwool

    This is a one-finger attempt to type this because my

    hands are in bad shape,but here goes….I am writing

    to thank you for the wonderful socks you sent me, I

    love them, they are perfect for me. These socks keep

    my feet warm, which is a big problem for me since

    Chemo treatmments, and, they are very light and not

    binding……very nice to wear. Jules is my daughter

    and I thank you for replying on her blog and being so

    kind. Sue Knittel >>>> Smartwool Rocks and boy, sure does Zappos as everyone is agreeing! I feel so lucky to have “met” them.

    Reply

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