Lest I be misunderstood, let me state for the record that I love Zappos. I admire, perhaps even envy them. And I like shoes as much as the next guy.
When companies attain preeminence, it is usually due to a convergence of factors. Surely Zappos is no exception. Being early to the game helped; with a strong, consistently fashionable offering, they established a relevant brand for upscale shoppers. Their adeptness at removing barriers to purchase and delivering legendary customer service play a big role. So do wide selections, good web design, easy navigation, solid back-end management, a generous return policy, reader-friendly copy, favorable word of mouth, sound capitalization, old-fashioned elbow grease and more. And not to be overlooked, though no one cares to admit their part in any success, are the twins of fortuity generally known as Luck and Timing.
It makes for an arguably fine recipe for any aspiring internet startup. The trouble is, once a company becomes a runaway success and reporters start showing up to ask how they did it, the above description seems so … so … banal. What reporters want to write, readers want to read, and, conveniently, business leaders want to dish up is self-congratulatory rhetoric dressed up as revolutionary thinking. Ironically, the result tends to be equally banal, often a mere recycling of In Search of Excellence-style flatulence. Yet in some sort of bizarre social contract, interviewer, interviewee and reader agree to treat the flatulence as new and instructive.
So it is that companies like Zappos come to believe, and would have us believe, too, that it was their strict adherence to cool-sounding values that rocketed them to success, and that your own strict adherence to like values will inevitably rocket you there, too.
At first glance, the values Zappos parades on its website and that reporters eagerly gush about appear compelling. Who can argue with lofty ideals like Deliver WOW Through Service, Embrace and Drive Change, Create Fun and A Little Weirdness, Be Adventurous, Pursue Growth and Learning, Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication, Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit, Do More With Less, Be Passionate and Determined, and Be Humble?
But let’s step back from the excitement for a moment. Exactly how does one implement and measure WOW? How about passion and weirdness? (For that matter, how do you reconcile an admonition to be humble with the blatant braggadocio of running self-aggrandizing, Are-We-Cool-or-What standards all over your website?) These are not standards. Standards are measurable. These are slogans designed to promote, not to explain.
Of course, their very magic and elusiveness explain why many managers eagerly embrace them. No one can prove that you do not adhere to what cannot be measured. Nor can anyone disprove their effectiveness. If a company succeeds, credit the “standards.” If it fails, claim that the “standards” would have worked if only the company had truly committed to them.
Zappos and other successful interactive companies deserve praise and admiration for their success. But it’s important not to discard the nitty-gritty for sexy sounding platitudes.
“Brand” has lots of definitions. Conveniently and not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between how a marketer defines “brand” and the kind of branding that that particular marketer happens to execute. I shall leave it to you decide if marketers hold to an approach because they believe in it, ferociously defend an approach because it’s the one they’ve been using, or a little of both.
But one important aspect of branding that most gurus tend to agree on is that a solid brand delivers a consistent, end-to-end customer experience. “End-to-end” is key. It means that at any point during a transaction a customer should be witnessing the brand’s standards in action.
Marketers usually focus on the front end. They use the traditional and interactive media to bring in new customers, bring back established ones, and make CEOs, board members and their respective spouses feel cozy about how their company looks.
The problem is that the back end — what happens to customers from the moment they show up in-person or online — usually falls under someone else’s control.
And not just one someone. In most companies, different lords rule over hiring and firing, store layout and maintenance, sign installation and maintenance, policy for handling returns and complaints, janitorial standards, inventory, phone etiquette, correspondence, order fulfillment, commission structures, discrimination and harassment policies, and more. Even worse, all too often such areas are controlled independently on a local, per-franchise or even per-store basis.
All of which can make delivering a consistent brand experience something of a challenge.
No wonder many an ad promises what a product or company in fact fails to deliver. If you have ever laughed aloud upon seeing a brand advertise “our courteous, trained professionals” and “our attractive, state-of-the-art facility” after one of their employees treated you like dirt or you found yourself wishing you’d remembered to wear your biohazard suit to their store, you know what I mean.
There are companies that pull off the end-to-end thing with aplomb. The brand everyone likes to celebrate for that — deservedly so — is Nordstrom. Their unfailing delivery of the brand promise built that reputation for them. Another celebrant is Apple, whose packaging is pure showmanship, and whose products emerge from a box ready to go. Both are per brand promise. Lesser known but amazing in their handling of the back end is Levenger. Products arrive assembled, expertly packaged, and backed by an insanely generous, no-weasel satisfaction guarantee. (Three years after purchasing a $300 attaché, a colleague inquired about replacing the shoulder strap which had a broken buckle. Replying that the strap wasn’t available separately, Levenger offered to replace the attaché or send a refund, sight unseen.)
Great ads and easy-to-navigate websites are important. But if they serve only as gateways to a disappointing experience, the result is a back-end fail.
Which, no matter whose area of responsibility it falls under, is ultimately a marketing fail.
If you’re a marketing director who knows about the holes in the back end but lacks the authority to plug them, I’m not sure what advice I can offer short of printing this post and hoping that the CEO doesn’t figure out that you’re the one who left it on her or his chair. But for those who have hole-plugging authority, consider this a friendly reminder to take a second look at the back end.