Zappos went from a struggling start-up in 2000 to getting acquired by Amazon in a deal valued at $1.2 billion in 2009. The face of the company, chief executive Tony Hsieh, was a successful entrepreneur even before joined the shoe company. He shares the secrets to his success in his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.

Hsieh has long insisted that customer service is paramount, especially at a time like now when many companies are scaling back their spending. In fact, at a time like now, customer service should become an integral part of your marketing strategy. You may not have as much money to spend on marketing as usual, but customer service doesn’t cost much. 

Some of the company’s idiosyncrasies are well-known, including a focus on customer service, free two-way shipping, and a tight workplace environment (some have even called it a cult). Even so, others will surprise you. Here are 5 rules from the book that you can apply to your own company:

1. Every Startup Should Know the Importance of Customer Service

Aside from the shoes and clothes, Zappos has a reputation for having a relentless focus on customer service. In fact, Tony Hsieh consistently cites this customer service as being the reason for the company’s immense success. Hsieh considers the humble telephone as a key differentiator that sets them apart at a time when instant messenger and email are often the only options elsewhere.

According to Hsieh, startups and entrepreneurs should utilize the telephone as part of their customer service efforts. Although just 5% of their sales come from phone calls, the Zappos CEO says that every call is a chance for businesses to improve both their service and relations with customers. He believes that this effort will eventually have a return in the form of a loyal customer who is more than pleased with being provided so much care and attention.

How to do this

While most startups and entrepreneurs focused on the service or product, Hsieh advises that the customer should still be a priority. In fact, Tony claims to be more passionate about providing excellent customer service than he is about the shoes that Zappos sell!

Takeaway – The rewards of customer service are not always tangible but they always matter.

2. Nurturing Company Culture

Zappos has such an unusual approach to company culture but these unorthodox ways have created a very strong sense of togetherness and identity in the company. Company employees are consistently urged to interact with each other and the company asks some very peculiar yet telling questions during interviews.

For example, in many interviews, potential Zappos employees ask if they broke company rules in order to get a job done. What’s more, as part of “security measures”, existing employees have to answer familiarity questions about their work colleagues and the results are recorded. In other words, Zappos encourages employees to get to know each other or find themselves locked out of their computers!

Either way, Tony Hsieh is adamant that this sense of company culture is another foundation of success for any startup. Even as the company grows, you can still retain the company culture.

How It’s Done

Hsieh believes that bonuses and direct rewards, in general, are counter-intuitive to production. Instead, he thinks that startups should focus on motivating workers through the actual work instead of unrelated perks. You can see this in play at Zappos when new hires are offered $4,000 to quit as a means of weeding out the people who might not be committed!

Takeaway – Create an environment in which people will want to work regardless of whether they’re paid or not!

3. Don’t Just Lead, Initiate

As a leader, you have a certain obligation to interfere from time to time but Tony Hsieh is crystal clear that micromanagement is the worst possible approach for entrepreneurs or startups. Aside from the fact that this creates more work for management, it also tends to result in an unhappy and unproductive workforce.

Hsieh recounts how he left his first job at Oracle as the environment was not conducive to personal growth. After all, why work for a company that does not care about the growth or happiness of its employees?

How to do this

Hsieh believes that it’s important for startups in particular to create a relationship in which employees are encouraged to learn, adapt and progress. The leader is responsible for initiating the type of workplace that employees will be proud to join.

Takeaway – Avoid stifling company culture by encouraging as much freedom of expression as possible.

4. Treat Every Interaction as an Opportunity

Tony is always eager to share his failures in life and uses these as learning opportunities. However, he has also learned that every relationship – big and small – is a potential opportunity.

For example, Hsieh recounts a fantastic story about when a business partner invited the rep of a very small brand to dinner. Fred Mossler knew that this brand contributed next to nothing to their bottom line but he genuinely valued the relationship with this rep. Later down the road, this rep would become the president of a company that Zappos was trying to purchase. Thanks to Mossler’s simple gesture, Zappos was now indirectly aligned with the company.

How to do this

Tony Hsieh thinks that startups should remember that every customer interaction, both good and bad, is an opportunity to at least learn something new.

Takeaway – Startups and entrepreneurs can benefit from the motto “Win or Learn”

5. Understanding What Makes You Happy

Prior to investing in Zappos, Tony Hsieh had his own venture capital business. However, during his time at the helm of this big operation, he realized that he was much happier running small businesses and injecting his passion into smaller projects. He realized how strong the correlation is between productivity and happiness.

In fact, you can see a very employee-focused culture in Zappos. One of the missions of the management is keeping the employees happy. Zappos provides yoga mats and life coaching sessions to employees while free lunches are also a regular thing in the workplace. According to Hsieh, keeping employees happy is the key to having an ultra-productive workplace. Although it seems cliché, it always works.

How to do this

Tony says that most companies simply do not talk to their employees. This is the only way to know if employees are happy. It sounds simple but employers should ask the employees if they are happy. If the answer is no, you should ask what the company can do to make them happy.

Takeaway – There is such a thing as a free lunch. It might be the difference between a happy workplace and an unproductive workforce.

For many people, advice on customer service can seem a little basic or lacking insight. Nevertheless, when it comes from a man who sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion, it’s advice worth heeding.