Known as a leading edge innovator in the use of social media in customer service, Zappos has become a darling of the Business Week set and a case study for those hoping to create a more meaningful customer service experience. Brian Kalma, Director of Web Strategy and User Experience was kind enough to sit down with me for a quick interview in preparation for his talk at MX 2009.
[Henning Fischer] Could you tell us a little about yourself, your team, what you do for Zappos and where you sit in the organization?
[Brian Kalma] I started at Zappos back in 2003 working on developing the Product Photography and Image Processing department. Back then it was a priority to purely represent the product visually. As that department grew to cranking out about 10,000 photos per day, it was in a pretty good place and I was able to move on to new things. Under the umbrella of Creative Services we incubated several sub-departments: Design, Front-End Development, Social Media, and User Experience. Each sub-department grew to be its own entity or merge with others, and I decided to focus on the area I felt we needed to improve on the most, User Experience. I currently head up our relatively new UX department where I am Director of Web Strategy/UX. The team consists of a UX Manager, 2 UX Designers, a taxonomist and a generalist. We’re not quite at the point where we are the initiators and drivers of all projects, but we have now staked a claim in all projects and are key pieces to projects. The exception is the evolution of our ZETA site, where we are the business owners.
[HF] What does it mean to lead a UX team in an organization that is first and foremost customer service oriented?
[BK] Quite plainly, it drives our focus. Customer service should BEGIN online, not with a phone conversation or a shipping upgrade. This drives us to really focus the ZETA site on achieving the goal of being a service-oriented site, not just a company. We are leveraging loads of customer feedback, user testing and overall intuition. Every employee goes through 4 weeks of customer service training at Zappos, it is instilled in us, and it helps us make better UX decisions on our ZETA site. We have a ways to go, but are in a better place than ever.
[HF] How do you see the role of UX evolving at Zappos?
[BK] Personally, I see the team becoming key drivers and innovators at Zappos. I see us becoming the place business needs and problems are brought to first to solve, the site is our storefront, we have to drive it. I also see UX evolving to become the data house for web usage statistics on our site as well as becoming the company resource for competitive research analysis. Ultimately, UX should be well enough integrated into the company such that we are less so a department and more so a mindset. Like customer service.
[HF] Zappos had jumped into social media far more enthusiastically than many, and you have spoken about the notion of people planning as being key to the company’s success. A lot of companies want a one size fits all approach to customer service, yet Zappos does almost the opposite. It has a very organic, homegrown effect, yet is clearly complex. How did this approach evolve?
[BK] This is a tough one to answer. Getting the right people with the right mindset is paramount to any notion/concept getting executed as envisioned. But, because you have the right people that vision can guide itself to a place not envisioned. I think Zappos always had a focus on service, it was the vision but it has evolved and has become realized in its own unique way because of the people. What we try to do, because we are confident with the people planning we do, is create as many customer touch point OPPORTUNITIES as possible. Not all customers want to talk to us, but when they do we want to be there in the place they feel comfortable talking to us in. It started with Phone, e-mail and live chat. It has evolved to be many places including Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Get Satisfaction… you name it. We have team members who are savvy across many customer touch point areas, we basically tell them “be smart and be real”, then we trust our hiring skills. If a business leader or company owner is not comfortable having their employees talk to their customers then they have the wrong employees!