Natalie L. Petouhoff, Ph.D. By Dr. Natalie Petouhoff

While at the Forrester IT Forum this past spring, I was invited by Tony and Alfred to visit I was intrigued about what I had heard about this company. Could it be actually true that even the receptionist understood what customer lifetime value (CLTV) meant? was known for their extreme customer service… but was the whole culture really like that? And if so, how did that work? I had enjoyed the tweets I’d seen of the nearly 400 employees on twitter- they seemed authentic, genuine… Zappos had built its business through developing relationships, creating personal, emotional connections and delivering high touch (WOW) customer service.

I reached out to Tony via Twitter and let him know I would be in Las Vegas. He immediately tweeted back, “Please come visit!”

I had met Alfred (the COO/CFO) and Tony (CEO) back in February of 2009 on Twitter. That’s when I had started my research on the ROI of social media for customer service.

Curious if what I heard in that February interview would be embodied in the actual corporate culture, I ventured from the Palazzo.I had imagined waiting in long taxi lines typical of Las Vegas… They would have none of that! I was greeted by a wonderful young women in a truck with a large logo. “Wow, I thought… They offered to come pick me up! That’s some kinda service!”

The gal that picked me up- she was one of the many receptionists– talked about what a wonderful place Zappos was to work; how important the culture was to her and that she couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. Oh, and that how they treated customers– how everyone at the company treated customers, not just the customer service reps, but everyone…. was their “secret sauce.” She said –like real customer experience trouper–” It helps us increase our customer lifetime value.” And that was my first experience of the embodiment of’s CLTV.

We arrived at the building and as I entered the lobby, I was WOWOW’d by the decor. It was fun, hip- and there were bookshelves full of THE top business books- not just one or two of one’s fav books, but just about everything you’d want to read… and not just one copy like a library, but 10-20 copies like a well stocked bookstore…. “The Tipping Point, Blink, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Co-opetition, Freakonomics, Chief Customer Officer, Tribal Leadership, The Ultimate Question, Flow, The Wisdom of the Crowds…” You get the picture… I asked — being a book addict — what they were for.

The receptionist said, “Those are for our employees to read. We can take them, read them, give them to our friends. Go ahead, browse the shelf. Take whatever you want.”

I asked, “So any employee, at any time, can just take a book. You don’t have to buy it or check it out? She said, “No that’s part of our culture. To continuously learn and be customer-focused.”

I was greeted by a handsome young man, Donvaon Roberson, who took me on the tour of the call center as well as the rest of the operation. It was clear that each group had played a large part in decorating their area to reflect their values, their dreams and their passions. It was not your typical company cubicles. It was colorful and vibrant. It rang of “play.” But not “play” in the “not so serious play”– but more of the type of “play” where enthusiasm was followed by passion which was fueled by truly delighting customers.

As the tour ended, I “got” that they “got it.” Customers were their business. Not shoes. Not orders. Not paperwork. Not spreadsheets. Not warehouses. They were in the business of serving customers- EVERYONE — marketing, sales, customer service, accounting, shipping… everyone truly got that the recipient of whatever a particular person’s “job” was— was a real, live human being. And it mattered how they did that “job” because —what they did somehow, some way affected another human being. And that level of consciousness and caring was astounding.

So on this day of July 23, 2009, the day that Amazon bought Zappos for $928M, I had to pose the question, “Does putting customers “first” pay?”

There’s long been two camps. Those that drive the bottom-line so hard that anything that can’t be seen as revenue on a P&L must be a waste. Their mantra? “Cut the fat! Cut the fun! A serious employee’s work is never done!”

And then there are those who believe that the customer and their experience fuels the bottom-line. I appreciate what my colleague Bruce Temkin has done to prove the business value of the customer experience. And I appreciate what Tony and Alfred did by building a company that is a true example of the value of putting customers first.

Perhaps now that we have the “proof” that putting customers “first” does —and will always pay- may the mantra of all companies become, “Love your customers, love them all. When you do, you never know what riches — of the soul, of the heart or of the bank, you will be fall.”

What’s your take on the importance of putting customer’s first?

Learn. Grow. Share.    @drnatalie or

Letter to employees from Tony: .