What can a 2,000-year-old organization learn from an online shoe company? It turns out that the Church and Zappos have a lot in common—they were both created to serve people. And both have encountered challenges along the way in implementing that vision. Zappos does three things very well, and the Church would do well to resurrect some of the same ideals.
In Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh (pronounced as Shay), CEO of Zappos, recounts a story of an impressive, profitable startup called LinkExchange that eventually sold to Microsoft for $250 million. Yet, Hsieh found himself bored and uninspired by his work. So he left LinkExchange before he could collect his portion of the sale.
Like Hsieh, many people in vocational ministry lament bureaucracy—feeling stuck in a culture that doesn’t agree with their passion. But unlike Hsieh, they’re resentful of their current situation, yet afraid to move on. Passion, though, combined with courage—sometimes even the courage to move—can change everything.
We have an environment where we empower our employees to do what’s best for the customer with minimal policies and hoops to jump through in order to do it. ...It’s about giving them a purpose to their job as opposed to just answering questions and taking orders.
“Our employees don’t have to be passionate about shoes, or anything else we sell,” says Maura Sullivan, Senior Manager of Zappos’ Customer Loyalty Team, “but they need to be passionate about service and helping people. That’s where great customer experiences come about—being able to help someone. It can change their day—even if it was just a pair of shoes.” Our vocation as Christians isn’t so different. But most of us aren’t willing to deliver 24/7 customer service to those in need. Zappos does it for shoes and clothing, yet we as Christians are terrible at being there for even our closest friends.
The work of Zappos employees goes beyond mission statements and business plans. It’s a part of who they are. Purpose is infused into every aspect of their culture, something that the leadership is intentional about developing and protecting.
Sullivan explains, “We have an environment where we empower our employees to do what’s best for the customer with minimal policies and hoops to jump through in order to do it. . . . It’s about giving them a purpose to their job as opposed to just answering questions and taking orders.”
As far as Zappos employees are concerned, it’s not about shoes or clothing. It’s about the service, the love, and the joy they put into their work. The company’s leadership encourages employees to live that vision each day with as little encumbrance as possible. The Customer Loyalty Team applies this in remarkably creative ways: thank-you notes, flowers, cookies, “wow packages,” and so on. There is complete freedom for a Zappos employee to follow up in a personal way with a customer they connected with. The example that Zappos sets is that anyone in any context—even a seemingly arbitrary one—can change make a difference in someone’s life.
For the Christian living in a culture where the pastor-as-CEO has become the dominant model for church leadership, creating a church culture that is like Zappos work culture can be difficult. Nonetheless, we need to learn how to not only depend on each other, but also empower one another. What that means is trusting one another.
“Communication is key,” says Sullivan, “especially when making a change or something that will affect the day to day. In a company that is constantly reinventing and redefining itself, making sure everyone is up to date and on the same page is crucial.”
Being this nimble can be a challenge, especially in larger organizations. To tackle this problem, Zappos didn’t draft a policy statement or send a blanket email to the organization; they had a conversation.
So many ministries and small churches neglect the discipline of communicating. Email is easy and accessible, so we tend to overuse it, but it rarely communicates the heart and purpose behind a particular initiative. What’s compelling about Zappos is their focus on being understood from the executive leadership to the entry-level positions. It’s all about relationships.
Observing Zappos makes me think that our churches don’t need to have another policy, committee, or addendum to their bylaws. We need more passion, purpose, and flexibility.
And if we do deliver service to one another like Zappos does within and outside their company, we too may be indispensable, and maybe, just maybe, our spiritual value will be the equivalent of about $847 million—what Amazon paid for Zappos in stock and cash.