Zappos Shows How Employees Can Be Brand-Builders

Is This 'Overlooked Resource' as Important as Paid Ads?

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Every year Zappos.com, one of the fastest-growing e-commerce sites, publishes a "culture book." Three hundred pages in length, the book includes written -- and often gushy -- testimonials from employees about what it means to work at Zappos.com.

"Our Zappos culture is truly the best work experience I have ever encountered," writes Chris V. "As a new employee of the company, I was blown away by how amazing the company really was. When I started I felt so unreal," notes David J. And on and on and on -- you get the idea.

Not by accident
If you talk to Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh or his marketing chief Brian Kalma,* you'll find a plan and a strategy, not to mention powerful, validating numbers to boot behind all this group love. Indeed, the vast majority of trial and repeat at Zappos.com is driven by word of mouth, and employees -- their motivation, their attentiveness to customers, their handling of feedback -- are foundational to that approach.

Mr. Kalma, director of creative services and brand marketing, employs the term "people planning," arguing that each employee needs to be a great point of contact with customers. "We invest the time and money into hiring and nurturing the right people, as many other companies do in their media planning," he said.

It's worth asking, Are employees a de facto ad channel? It might be a crude way to frame the question, but if in fact there's a tangible, measurable relationship between employee behavior and buzz, we can't ignore that free, high-impact employee-generated media -- EGM, if you will -- affects the broader media mix.

Hidden power
"I do think that a well-trained, highly motivated workforce that understands the brand, their role in making it successful and who feels empowered to do just that, is any company's most powerful and most underutilized asset," says Rick Murray, CEO of Edelman Digital and board member of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

Leslie Forde of Communispace, a firm that builds and manages online communities for brands, emphatically agrees, noting that employees are the "overlooked resource." She asks, "How many times have we extended forgiveness or patience to a brand that 'messes up' in a customer service interaction, because the individual employee that we've dealt with is impressive and professional?"

If Murray and Forde -- and countless others -- are right, shouldn't all of us in marketing be dialing this up in importance? Of course, getting this right is easier said than done. You can't just increase employee loyalty and advocacy overnight the way you can with media spend, and not everyone will want to go the full distance of Zappos.com.

To be sure, this is a long-term proposition. "ROI metrics for employee loyalty and education are more complex and require a long-term view," warns Forde. Moreover, employee training isn't necessarily within the scope of the CMO, and the HR department isn't necessarily incentivized to think about employees as brand-building billboards.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of the forthcoming book "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (Doubleday). He's a former co-leader of P&G interactive marketing, the founder of PlanetFeedback.com and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). This bi-weekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control. Pete's blogs include ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com and Tell3000.com.


Then we have the risk factors. One downside of the employee-as-relationship-builder model, notes professor Tim Heath of Miami University in Ohio, "is employees leaving the company and taking 'their' customers with them, a threat that can be mitigated to some degree with non-compete clauses in contracts."

Worth a try
It's a reasonable concern, but hardly a good excuse to sit idle. Indeed, there's a growing list of excellent reasons why we can start connecting dots to at least establish a beachhead to a new model:
  • Measurements: Let there be no doubt, but today we can quantify the conversation in such a way that we can pinpoint specific "talk drivers" around all aspects of employee behavior. Thanks to consumer-generated media analysis, we can now determine with high statistical significance why employee behavior at, say, Burger King or Taco Bell creates positive or negative conversation. We can even assign "reach" value to the conversation. We can determine just about every nuance related to customer service, which in the vast majority of cases implicated (or rewards) employee training or behavior. Smart listening always sets the foundation for better business processes.
  • Social-Media Experiments: Social-media tools provide brands with a broader spectrum of "test and measure" tools to pinpoint opportunities to better understand the impact of employee loyalty and advocacy. These tools also provide powerful windows into the character and personality of the employees. Just think about Frank Eliason and Richard Binhammer, the guys who Twitter for Comcast and Dell, respectively. (Disclosure: Comcast is a client.) There's a spirit and enthusiasm in their posts and commentary that reflects both their character and their employee advocacy. Corporate blogs are bringing the same opportunity and value to the table.
  • Online Video: The rock we've yet to truly uncover around online video is how it can enable brands to bring the character and authenticity of employees to the forefront. The "sight, sound and motion" benefits of employees talking across the video airwaves may well open up a powerful range of opportunities for companies to reap the full benefits of employee advocacy. Just think about Microsoft's four-year-old experiment with Channel9, the video-based employee blog. High authenticity, high impact.
  • The "New" Customer Service: As Zappos.com would readily tell us, the customer-service channel is perhaps the most critical brand-building arena, and employees are clearly central to this area. Brands should be conducting large and small experiments in this area to understand how a little extra "touch" can impact the game. Social-media tools can clearly help get brands started, but the learning might also start with the good old-fashioned phone scripts.
  • Rewards and Incentives: If the conversation is so measurable, and the outcomes of employee advocacy are more tangible, perhaps now is the time to create more data-grounded incentive and reward models. If, for example, only buzz directly calls out an exceptional contribution by an employee, perhaps this should be rewarded. Online consumers constantly call out Southwest or Nordstrom employees for going the extra distance. If it's measurable, it's rewardable, right?
I'm not suggesting that every company adopt the Zappos.com culture book. But if conversation is the new gold standard, and employees are consistently at the heart of the conversation, we have a big compelling reason -- and tons of upside -- in rethinking the importance of employee advocacy.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Mr. Kalma's name as Brian Karma.
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