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CX Loses a Visionary

Jim Tincher Jim Tincher 12/03/2020

As I’m sure many of you were, I was shocked to hear of Tony Hsieh’s untimely death this past weekend.

In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Tony is the recently-retired CEO of Zappos. In that role, he shepherded an online shoe seller with annual sales around $1 million (Zappos started as into a massive e-commerce enterprise that sold to Amazon just 10 years later for $1.2 billion.

It’s a testament to his talent and vision that that accomplishment isn’t the most notable thing about him. (But you should still read his fascinating, candid account of how the sale went down!)

Doing things differently

During his tenure at Zappos, he created a culture that empowered employees to deliver a great customer experience based on individual customers’ needs. He’s also the author of Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. And Delivering Happiness is the name of a separate company he established to bring the Zappos approach to others.

Tony is famous for saying, “Zappos is a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.” This strong focus on a specific emotional outcome – in this case, happiness – informed every aspect of their experience design. In the early days, when they didn’t have much inventory, Zappos would even buy shoes from others at retail just to make sure they could create happiness in their customers. If they’re out of stock, they still redirect customers to their competitors. Because they know that in doing so, they might lose one sale, but they also might gain a customer for life.

And while many of us talk about the importance of creating a great employee experience to enable staff to deliver great customer experiences, Tony accomplished it, and at a level most of us can only dream of. He and his team did everything they could to knock down barriers to an exceptional experience.

Zappos employee Steve Weinstein is just one example of how this obsession translated into action. Weinstein once talked with a customer for 10 hours and 51 minutes. Most companies would probably have fired him for spending so long on one customer (though he did get a sale at the end). Instead Zappos celebrated him, even publishing details about the call on their blog. (Though Hsieh was, understandably, less eager to share the equally-impressive “pizza story”!)

Creating happiness as job one

Zappos orients every element of their experience toward creating happiness, including a relentless focus on creating happiness in employees.

And all of that started with Tony.

I had the opportunity to hear Tony a few years back, when we were both speaking at CCW in Las Vegas. I had read his book and eagerly anticipated hearing new information about how Zappos was creating a better customer experience. That’s probably what everyone else at CCW expected, too.

Instead, Tony spoke about his work revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. He talked at length about how the city was investing in bringing back the area. He explained how Zappos was taking a leading role in the effort.

It’s likely that many attendees left disappointed. Instead of actionable tips on how to improve their own customers’ experiences, they may have felt like they heard a “venture-capital take on urban locavorism.”

But not me. As someone committed to the revitalization of my own area in Minneapolis, I appreciated this glimpse into the life of a true visionary. Tony applied the same passion, ingenuity, and zeal he showed in his business dealings to all aspects of life…whether or not there was a financial reward. We can all learn something from that, too.

Tony introduced us to multiple ways of new thinking, from doing away with one-size-fits-all office cubicles to the notion of paying new hires to quit.

His impact goes well beyond selling shoes because it was never about selling shoes.

So please join me in celebrating the life of Tony Hsieh, one of the great visionaries of our craft. He will be missed.

In tribute, we’re sharing some of our favorite quotes from Tony Hsieh on Instagram this week. We’d love to hear yours!

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