Zappos: Delivering Happiness, Powered by Service

A story of the unwavering focus on exceptional customer experience.. and the success that follows

As an online retailer, Zappos brings the in-store shopping experience to customers in their homes, initially with shoes, and now with a wide array of other products as well. The business model of Zappos is built on providing an exceptional customer experience, and in doing so, building customer loyalty and driving word-of-mouth marketing.[1]

A few key components of this customer promise include:

  • Free shipping and returns on all orders, regardless of order size, enabling customers to order multiple items to try on in the comfort of their own home
  • 365 Day Return Policy
  • 24/7 Customer Service

Financial Results

While delivering happiness may be a competitive advantage, the cost of doing so is high. In 2008, 37% of purchases were returned ($379 million worth of goods) as a result of the lenient return policy. While some might balk at this number, Zappos views this expense as an investment in marketing, believing that happy customers are the best marketing channel. Indeed, Zappos has found success with this model, reaching over $1.1 billion in gross revenue by 2009, at which point it was acquired by Amazon.[4] Today, Zappos has annual revenue of well over $2 billion.[1]



The success of this business model is the result of an effective alignment with its underlying operating model. The unwavering focus on service that we see in the business model is also the driving force behind many key operating decisions.

Operating Model

Inventory and Warehousing

When founded in 1999, Zappos was originally designed as a “middleman,” operating based on the “drop ship” model. It held no inventory and simply connected customer orders with manufacturers who filled the orders. In 2003, however, with many e-commerce companies going bust in the dot-com crash, Zappos decided to differentiate itself through providing exceptional customer service.  This was not possible under the drop ship model, as Zappos had no control over the delivery times of manufacturers and never had perfect visibility into their inventory. As a result, Zappos terminated its drop ship business and began buying inventory and storing it within their own warehouses. By moving the fulfillment of orders in-house, they could own the entire customer experience.[3],[4]

Call Center Operations

Relocation from SF to Vegas

Zappos understood that call center interactions were a critical part of customer service. However, when headquartered in San Francisco, it was difficult to find the right type of committed, service-oriented people with whom to staff its call centers. With its high cost of living and tech-heavy culture, the Bay Area was not a place where call center jobs were taken seriously. As a result, many of the call center employees were temps who did not deliver the desired level of quality.[4]

To address this issue, Zappos moved its headquarters to Las Vegas. In addition to its lower cost of living, Vegas was also chosen for its unique culture. As a city with a heavy emphasis on hospitality, its citizens were more likely to view a customer service job as a way to start a legitimate career. Furthermore, with the city’s pervasive “all-night” culture, people were more willing to work odd hours, enabling Zappos to provide a 24/7 customer service line.[4]

Emphasis on Quality Interactions

While other companies focus on reducing the issue resolution time on customer calls, Zappos does not limit the amount of time that customer representatives spend on the phone with each customer. Instead, Zappos encourages its employees to spend as much time as needed to really understand the customer’s issues and go above and beyond in helping the customer. To this end, Zappos also does not have a script for its call center reps, and encourages them to be authentic and build a personal emotional connection (PEC) with each customer.[4]

Looking Forward: Holacracy

As Zappos grows, it continues to look for new ways to stay innovative in optimizing the customer experience. Lately, this has taken the form of holacracy, a new organizational structure which eliminates bosses and comprises of many self-managed “circles.” The idea is to prevent the bottlenecks that come with bureaucracy and to structure Zappos more like an incubator in an attempt to attract talented employees with an entrepreneurial bent.[5],[6] Furthermore, as part of the holacracy structure, when a customer issue arises repeatedly, a different team is assigned to address it each time, resulting in the generation of many different innovative ideas for solving the problem. These ideas are then reviewed to develop a sustainable solution.[1] In doing this, Zappos widens the ideation phase of the design funnel in order to stay innovative in maximizing customer happiness.

Holacracy is a radical approach that isn’t for everyone though. Since its implementation last year, 14% of Zappos employees have already left as a result.[5] However, the long-term financial and cultural impact remain to be seen. For now, the one thing we do know is that Zappos remains as steadfast as ever in its commitment to delivering customer happiness.



[1] “Zappos and the Connection Between Structure and Strategy.” Harvard Business Review, June 3, 2015. <>

[2] Zappos website. Accessed Dec 9, 2015. <>

[3] “Tony Hsieh: Redefining Zappos’ Business Model.” Bloomberg Business, May 27, 2010. <>

[4] “How I Did It: Zappos’s CEO on Going to Extremes for Customers.” Harvard Business Review, Jul-Aug 2010 issue. <>

[5] “Tony Hsieh got rid of bosses at Zappos – and that’s not even his biggest idea.” Washington Post, Dec 1, 2015. <>

[6] “Zappos and the search for a better way to run a business.” Fortune, Jan 29, 2014. <>


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Student comments on Zappos: Delivering Happiness, Powered by Service

  1. So true – Zappos is king when it comes to customer service! After reading about the call center moving to Vegas, that decision makes a ton of sense. I wonder if other companies have followed suit to build up call center capabilities there because it seems of the unique culture there.

    Also, I’m interested to know how the decision to focus on customer service has evolved over time. While Zappos has certainly earned itself a name on that competitive advantage, have consumer preferences changed over the years such that customer service is not always the top factor for purchasing online? In particular, retail over the past few years has become more and more a price play. Has that had any impact on how Zappos has had to compete to get purchases? It’d be an awesome and really powerful case study if Zappos has largely been immune to this trend!

  2. Thanks for sharing Wendy! I’m glad you brought up the recent implementation of halocracy, as it does seem that it creates an incredible opportunity to develop new solutions to ideas. My question is how Zappos will maintain it’s current quality of service under this new operating structure? It seems like Managers are key for quality control and maintaining some semblance of best practices even if Personal Emotion Connection is a crucial piece of service. Will leaders still emerge without actual titles who will then drive their own agendas? Also, Amazon is known for it’s top down management model, how was Zappos able to convince their parent company that this change will improve satisfaction and drive growth?

  3. I have personally been very impressed with Zappos and its culture with a strong focus on customer service. While at my last startup, we tried to learn a lot from Zappos’ customer service and gave agents a lot of freedom. What I would want to understand better is how do they maintain any sort of control over the call centre agents to prevent malpractices? Also, how does the model allow for disproportionate amount of spending over customer service?

  4. Big time Zappos customer here – VIP member. It’s interesting to me that the retention rate fell once they implemented the new “circles” staffing model. Perhaps hospitality-minded people, focused on making customers feel satisfied, need the structure of a formal working environment with a manager, etc. to be productive. I’m curious to know if once they implemented this, did effectiveness at solving challenges decrease because people had to now work together in a less structured way more than before? Working well in teams and being successful in team-based problem solving are a different set of skills from the soft ones required to be good at customer service. In a way, people that work customer service at a place like Zappos (where time on the call isn’t important) likely involve a lot of personality into what they do – personality they likely feel is a critical part of they ability to do their job so effectively. When you tamper with that, it’s likely some employees will feel marginalized. Good article!

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