Culture First, Customers Second – Culture Done Right

April 13, 2016

This article is part of the Lisbon Challenge series on culture and how it affects every decision you make. You can find the presentation deck online.

When I first met Tony Hsieh, at a social media conference in Las Vegas in 2008, I was inspired by the simplicity in his message as much as the awkwardness and humility of his public appearance. Tony seemed to be the least probable of people to ever inspire you, let alone run a company with revenues of over $1 billion USD.

Tony’s emphasis was, and has  throughout the years, centred on the internal culture of the company. With the passing of time, the only thing that changed was his conviction that in fact culture, and not customers, was the number one priority, a belief that was grounded on the impressive performance of Zappos.

Through time, the core values from which Zappos derives its culture, brand and business strategy have subtly evolved from Core Values to Family Core Values. This is a big change. You can’t enforce a culture at work if those values are not followed through in the private life of the employees.

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

Every time I went to a conference in Las Vegas, I always made time to go and spend some time at Zappos. I still remember walking around their Henderson offices, as part of the daily tours they have for anyone to join, and being left confused with the amount of joyful activity yet impressive business results.

As we moved from department to department in a vast open space, each group of Zappos employees put on their best show for the visitors. Some blow horns whilst others put on a wacky dance, most interrupting their work to demonstrate the Zappos culture at work.

I let my group move on and couldn’t resist leaning over to an employee and discreetly asking “what happens when you have shit day?” Her concerned look should have prepared me for the answer. “We don’t have shit days”. And there you go. This is no place for skeptics, naysayers or individuals with chips on their shoulders. This is Zappos – happy land where you are either in, or out.

With time and experience, I began to understand that this isn’t a strategy you copy, but instead one, which you need to fully understand and decide whether you are prepared or not to adapt to your organization.

It’s not about being Zappos or like Zappos, but instead understanding that every decision you make, whether product or recruitment based, must be aligned with your culture yet the hard part is defining it concretely and then executing on it, every minute of the hour, every day of the year.

It’s a process in constant evolution and not something you revisit on a yearly basis. It’s not a strategy, tool or marketing gimmick. It’s central to your existence and of the utmost importance, more so than being centered on your customer.

“To make customers happy, we have to make sure our employees are happy first.”

The idea of creating a great company culture emerged in the latter part of the last decade, as companies feared employee turnover simply because working in most companies just plain sucked back then. There were just a few case studies where traditional media focused on the gimmicks – free food, Ping-Pong tables, spas and child care at work. When interviewed, most of these lucky employees seemed overly gracious of their luck in being so happy at work.

In one 60 Minutes interview, an employee walked around a campus describing all the endless perks paid by his employer to ensure they were looked after. The interviewer asked in a skeptical tone “Isn’t this like living in Disney World?” The reply was sharp. “Yes. But who doesn’t love Disney World?”

We need to ensure we don’t confuse the existence of perks with a great company culture. Don’t be fooled by the shiny objects – the visual side of a great company culture: what you don’t see is even better yet. Companies like Zappos don’t motivate their collaborators – they inspire them to learn, share and look after each other. They are building a sustainable and tight community of like-minded individuals with one single goal. Some might see it as a cult. At times, it sure does sound like it but it really is voluntary. Or so I’m told.

In most businesses, product and price play too much importance in the future of the company. Building a strong culture does create a competitive advantage, difficult to emulate, especially compared to the time it takes to copy a product, undercut the competitors’ price or poach their most valuable of employees. Culture isn’t copied. At best, it is understood, adapted and implemented to fit the company, ensuring relevance and context. It’s a monumental commitment that will eventually pay back but it’s no quick fix.

photo: Zappos