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Absorbing variety | by dgray_xplane
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Absorbing variety

Most services cannot reduce the variety of their inputs and control their environment as easily as fast-food restaurants. Customer demand is not usually so easily standardized and regulated. Customers have many problems to solve in their lives. They have many jobs that need doing, and only a few of them can be easily reduced to a small set of standard inputs.


Customers have a tendency to resist standardization. The more you try to standardize their service requests, the more you will piss them off. Not a good recipe for customer satisfaction or long-term business growth.

In most cases, service providers must reorganize to absorb variety rather than reduce or contain it.


Online shoe store Zappos’ call centers are designed to absorb variety. Most call centers look at customer support as a cost. After all, if you have already been paid for a product and delivered it, then you already have your money and any additional effort on your part will cost you money, right? Zappos looks at the equation differently.


Zappos knows that a customer call probably represents a very tiny fraction of their total interactions with the company. Unlike most online retailers, Zappos encourages person-to-person contact. Zappos publishes their 1-800 number on every page of their site. Online stores don’t get a lot of chances for real human contact with customers, and Zappos does everything they can to turn customer calls into positive, human experiences that customers will remember. Their number one goal is to deliver experiences that are so great they are worth talking about.

The first step in creating a great customer experience is hiring the right people in the first place. After four weeks of training, Zappos call center reps are offered $3,000 to quit immediately. Remember, this is for an $11-an-hour job.


By offering people money to quit, Zappos ensures that the people they hire are really excited about working there.

At Zappos, there are no “customer service scripts” or pre-set time limits for customer support calls. Reps are encouraged to take as much time as necessary to solve the customer’s problem, and their mission is to provide the best customer service possible. Zappos has a 100% satisfaction guaranteed return policy. After the call, service reps follow up and keep their promises, and send a personal note as part of their follow-up.


Good customers are profitable customers. Zappos treats frequent customers well, with surprises like upgrades from standard ground shipping to next-day air.


Making customers happy, says CEO Tony Hsieh, leads to cost savings elsewhere, like marketing. “We let our customers do our marketing” he says.


By making sure they get the right people and giving them the autonomy and authority they need to serve customers, Zappos call centers are designed to absorb variety, not contain it.

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Taken on December 5, 2011