Why 26 college presidents toured Zappos—and what they took away

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Why 26 college presidents toured Zappos—and what they took away

College presidents can learn employee engagement lessons from the private sector, says EAB's General Manager of Research

EAB staff members in front of Zappos sign

The first step to creating a great experience for your students is to create a great experience for your employees. That’s one of the key themes 26 college presidents and chancellors discussed during a tour last November of Zappos, a company famous for delighting both its users and its employees.

The trip was an out-of-sector experience lab orchestrated by EAB‘s Melanie Ho, as part of the Higher Ed Strategy Forum‘s ongoing work to help university leadership teams understand how campuses must evolve to remain relevant to the students of tomorrow.

“Our whole belief is if you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term brand or business will just be a natural byproduct,” says Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.

Our whole belief is if you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term brand or business will just be a natural byproduct.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

Ho acknowledges that the term “customer service” can make some campus leaders uncomfortable. “Whether students should be treated as customers or not, that’s a debate that goes all the way back to Socrates,” she explains. “When it comes to student learning, there are times when thinking about the student as customer is the wrong answer.”

But campus leaders who can suspend their initial disbelief and embrace discomfort stand to learn valuable lessons about student and employee engagement from the private sector, Ho notes.

“Through the right lens, some of the questions Zappos asks every day start to sound a lot like the questions college presidents are asking,” she says. “Questions like ‘How do you cultivate long-term loyalty over time?’ and ‘How do we create a unified sense of purpose and culture across our organizational siloes?”

Ho identifies four lessons higher ed can take away from Zappos.

1: Give front-line staff the tools to “WOW” every person they serve

Through the right lens, some of the questions Zappos asks every day start to sound a lot like the questions college presidents are asking.

Melanie Ho, general manager, head of higher ed research at EAB

What Zappos does: The company has built its reputation on customer service; Hsieh often refers to it as a “customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.” It starts with the phone number sitting at the top of every web page. If you dial it, you’ll speak with representatives who have no script, sales quota, or time limit to their calls. The reps have the authority to make manager-level decisions, allowing them to accept special-case returns, offer refunds, and generally do whatever they need to do to “WOW” their customers.

“You have the customer’s undivided attention for five to ten minutes, and if you get the interaction right, what we’ve found is that the customer remembers the experience for a very long time and tells his or her friends about it,” Hsieh wrote in his book, Delivering Happiness.

Considerations for higher ed: Ho encourages campus leaders to continue rethinking the role of personalized interaction in a digital world. As traditional, residential students get more information and perform more activites online, personal touches carry even more weight. “Are there ways your students would benefit if front-line staff were more empowered?” she asks.

During the EAB tour, presidents discussed whether advisors and others focused on student success could be more responsive to student needs if they had the right authority to address whatever barriers stood in their students’ way.

Presidents also noted that a focus on long-term customer loyalty, like the approach at Zappos, would become increasingly important to higher ed in the future. Alumni increasingly play critical roles as “word of mouth” advocates for incoming students, financial supporters, and prospects for new professional and graduate offerings. According to Ho, one of the most frequent strategic questions presidents are posing to EAB is how to develop “lifelong learning memberships” that last well beyond the initial undergraduate degree.

2: Empower employees to improve themselves and the organization

What Zappos does: No matter their department or seniority, every employee goes through the same training as the call center representatives and spends two weeks working on the front line, taking customer service calls. For longer-term professional development, Zappos offers in-house life coaches and classes on business skills and functions.

And Zappos applies that same improvement mindset to the company itself; every employee is encouraged to make one micro-improvement per week that helps the company better reflect its core values.

Considerations for higher ed: Give employees the tools they need to grow professionally and understand the whole organization, and they’ll feel more ownership and be more likely to stay with you for their entire career. Ho suggests reflecting on areas where “rotations” could be useful for faculty, administrators, and staff to better understand key issues and functions.

EAB has seen universities find success with faculty rotations of varying types, ranging from a year in budget meetings (to understand university finances) to a week answering prospective professional master’s student inquiries (to understand how they’re evaluating your program vs. competitors).

During the tour, many presidents were impressed by Zappos’ success at creating a culture where employees see it as a true privilege to work there and feel empowered to make things right.

3: Employee engagement doesn’t need to be complicated—or expensive

What Zappos does: Employees have several channels for building connections with each other and recognizing a colleague’s good work. On an internal website, employees can make a wish or grant a wish to a fellow co-worker. These can be light (tickets to a game, pet sitting, small gifts) or more serious (co-workers chipping in to help a team member visit a relative in another state).

Employees can also nominate a co-worker to receive a $50 bonus for going above and beyond in their jobor express gratitude to colleagues by giving them “Zollars,” in-house currency that can be redeemed for things like branded swag and charitable donations.

Considerations for higher ed: There’s been a lot of media attention to tech companies like Google who spend a lot of money on employee perks and culture. By contrast, the culture-building initiatives at Zappos are fairly low-cost, Ho points out. Employee engagement can be as simple as giving staff members a forum for showing their appreciation to a colleague. Ho also notes that you don’t have to implement every culture-building initiative across your entire campus. Some of them might work better with certain audiences or departments.

4: Partner with the private sector on community revitalization

What Zappos does: Hsieh has invested $350 million of his own dollars in The Downtown Project to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, home to Zappos headquarters. Five years in, the project has invested $200 million in local real estate, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in local arts and culture, and $50 million in tech start-ups. The program has created or supported an estimated 1,571 jobs.

Considerations for higher ed: The private sector is increasingly taking on “public good” activities that are traditionally associated with colleges and universities, Ho explains.  As universities think about how to emphasize their commitment to their communities, companies can be valuable partners for regional economic development. She recommends looking around at which local opportunities for public-private partnerships your campus might not be taking full advantage of.

Where presidents are going next

While the Zappos tour explored how colleges can empower employees to better serve students, the next out-of-sector experience lab will focus on the future of work. In January, the Higher Ed Strategy Forum will convene a group of presidents at LinkedIn headquarters and San Jose State University to envision bold new ways higher ed can build and credential the workforce of the future.

When it comes to future strategic planning, these three thought patterns can trip up leaders. Here's how to challenge biases and overcome incremental thinking to better prepare your campus for the future.

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