Can Happiness Help You in Business? A Visit to Zappos

05/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An online retail company whose CEO says their primary purpose is not to make money, but to spread happiness...

Whose customer service agents try to make an authentic connection with callers...

Whose in-house coach's job is to support staff no matter what their needs, even if it means helping them develop a plan for quitting the company and switching vocations...

A company who values its culture so much that if new employees are not fully confident that the company is right for them after several weeks, the company will pay them a $2,000 bonus to leave...

Welcome to Zappos, where I visited recently. I had scheduled an hour-long interview with the CEO, Tony Hsieh (pronounced "Shay," but whom everyone refers to as "Tony") for an interview series I am doing, but after our time together, he asked, "Do you want to talk to anyone else here?" and I ended up spending the entire afternoon there.

I had been to other innovative corporate headquarters, like Google, where it is easy to be impressed by the numerous cafeterias serving high quality free food all day, the lap swimming pools, the volleyball court, the many masseuses, and the snack stands around almost every corner. How does one beat that?

Zappos, I learned, focuses less on external amenities, and more on supporting individual expression and the internal happiness of each employee. However, don't get Zappos wrong: they have no problem with making money. In fact, they did $3 million dollars in gross merchandise sales the day before my visit, and surpassed $1 billion last year. It turns out, according to Hsieh, that a business focused on happiness is not only good for the company's culture, but has a secondary impact: increased customer loyalty and sales.

(CEO, Tony Hsieh)

What's their secret? The in-house coach, Dr. Vik, described it this way: "We try to treat people as if they matter, because they really do." Jo Casey, a Help Desk Coordinator who said in Zappos she has found a place where she can be herself and does not need to hide her tattoos, when pushed to put the Zappos philosophy into words said, "You have to give away what's been given to you in order to keep what's been given to you. To be kind and help others, in return others will be kind and help you." So if someone calls seeking an item that Zappos does not carry, the customer service rep is encouraged to help the person find somewhere online that does have the item. (I tested this myself after my visit, calling to ask for a shoe I knew that did not carry, and was helped accordingly.)

(Jo Casey, Help Desk Coordinator)

Of course, it is easy to talk a good game, and Zappos' 365-day return policy and free shipping both ways is certainly an expression of a new approach to business, but what impressed me the most in my afternoon there was how much staff make an effort to live it. It came through in the quality of assistance given by employees when my friend, Paul Zelizer, and I walked unaccompanied through the business and had to ask for directions; in the willingness of staff to share their experiences; and in the openness of employees who greeted one another and us as we walked through the halls. (This is a stark contrast to other tech companies where people are often more concerned with messages coming through on their Blackberry than the person they are passing in the hallway.)

(Sign in hallway at Zappos)

According to Hsieh, in this age where there are so many ways for both former employees and customers to share their positive and negative experiences with a company (from blogs to Twitter to Facebook), businesses may no longer be able to afford not to make happiness a priority. This is not about trying to convince people to be altruistic, according to Hsieh, but instead comes from the research on "the science of happiness." The company, which started out selling shoes and has since expanded to other apparel, has been greatly influenced by the findings in this field.

I am sure there are challenges and conflicts at Zappos, and days when staff are not in the best moods, but this company (based in Las Vegas) could well be helping to forge the next revolution in business. I left Zappos wondering, "Could supporting and bringing forth happiness into the world be the next great business model? Could focusing on the quality of each interaction versus the quantity of profits actually increase a business's chances of succeeding in this new era?"