2010 was a turning point in my career, even if I didn’t know it. After completing my MA in history and wrapping up my part-time research roles for history professors, I landed a full-time role at a policy research organization. It wasn’t exciting, nor was it prestigious. It even felt like a dead-end (it was). But it was 5 days a week in an office for the first time in my life, and that was exciting. But I still wanted more. My applications to jobs increased threefold — in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and beyond. I desperately wanted a challenge and purpose. Really: I wanted to get my career going and leave academia far behind.
One super cool, quirky non-profit to which I applied asked for a book that had an impact on my life. I was a bit lost on this one. While I had some favorite fiction, I wouldn’t call them inspiring. A decade of reading history books in academia left me exhausted by non-fiction. After a quick search for “customer service book,” I found Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. I had been a Zappos devotee for years, and they had been acquired by Amazon the previous year. Plus, it wasn’t too long (🙄) and I felt confident I could digest it before the interview I landed with them. So I offered DH as my book, hit submit, and got to reading.
For those unfamiliar, Delivering Happiness is part Tony Hsieh biography part history of Zappos, part guide on how to build a truly customer-centric company. At it’s core, it argues that Zappos was a customer service company that happened to sell shoes. (Note: I’ve heard tech CEOs say most companies today are tech companies that happen to sell cars/build airplanes/make beer, and that also feels true and partially inspired by DH). Of course, that is my synthesis of the book. His stream-of-consciousness narrative storytelling breaks the book down into ‘Profits,’ ‘Profits and Passion,’ and ‘Profits, Passion, and Purpose.’ The Zappos blog actually has some interesting tidbits (and sweet camera phone pics) including the nugget that while writing DH, Tony, Jenn, and their editor Will were on a 20:4 wake:sleep cycle while they worked to meet their deadline.
While Delivering Happiness resonated with me because it was so obsessively customer-centric (their customer support team will still answer any question you ask them, whether it’s about their products or otherwise), what always struck me about Zappos was their commitment to their obsession. It’s always going to be easier to be idealistic when you’re 50 people in a room, but as you grow in revenue, headcount, and board members, it’s hard to hold on to what made you special. But Zappos did just that. Through building relationships with customers and colleagues, Hsieh believed that you could create something special. And the Zappos team certainly did, even after their acquisition by Amazon.
It’s sad to lose a visionary like Tony Hsieh at an early age. We’ll miss out on so many radical ideas that could’ve changed the world in ways we can’t imagine. Leaders who cut against the grain and swim upstream and think differently are so rare. Rarer still are the ones who do so not as a means to get rich, but because making the world happier is their true mission.
Despite never landing a job at that nonprofit I interviewed with (I applied a bunch of times over the course of a year), Delivering Happiness provided me with a North Star on which to focus my own philosophy on customer service. After nearly a decade in retail, I knew how to work with customers. I also knew deep down that going above and beyond was in my DNA. But Delivering Happiness let me know I was not alone, and that there were many out there who believed that crafting awesome experiences for customers is not just a dream, it is the minimum.