Karin’s Leadership Articles

Zappos has so many folks looking to benchmark their magic, that they offer a menu of ways to learn their playbook. Teaching culture has become a revenue stream. While the rest of us carefully guard our best practices, they offer you shot of Grey Goose, and welcome you to play along. Why?

My theory– they know we don’t have the guts to pull it off.

They’ve seen thousands of mesmerized execs return home to create more rules and standards that absolutely ensure a culture like that will never exist.

Cracker Jack Service

Chip Bell’s latest book, The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service offers easy suggestions to creating great customer service cultures. No Grey Goose required. He advocates for “Cracker Jack” service, differentiating experience through surprise.
It was not the colorful box of caramelized popcorn that enamored consumers; it was the free toy inside. While financially worthless it was emotionally priceless. And, it is a reminder of the clout of simplicity.
His advice is extremely simple. Build cultures of empathy, delight and surprise. But most of the LGL community in not in the C-Suite, making the big rules. You can’t build a Zappos from the bottom up. So, how do frontline and middle management leaders encourage creative, zappos-like magic within their existing cultures? I called Chip.

He shared,
“Customer service organizations rely on command and control when they hold a belief that the frontline is not capable of handling such responsibility. The downward spiral begins when the capable people react to that kind of treatment, by doing exactly what you’ve told them to do. Frontline leaders can structure the work so the reps find joy in the experience.
He offered this simple suggestion.

Ask reps to consider, “what’s something I could say to this customer today that would really surprise them?”

I’m off to try that.

I appreciate the conversation with Chip in the writing of this post. Chip is the author of 20 books, including Wired and Dangerous (co-authored with John Patterson) and Take Their Breath Away (also with John Patterson). He is a senior partner with the Chip Bell Group and serves as a consultant, trainer, or speaker to major organizations. 

*Excerpt from INC: Ten Steps to Zappos Success

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Patti Porco

    Karin, I just love this post. The command and control style is one I have seen far too often in the corporate world. It seems that managers are afraid to let their frontline folks take a risk. They would be better served if they would just “let go of the reins” a bit. Thanks for the post!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Patti, So great to see you here! Yes, it’s hard to measure creativity and easy to measure handle time. But customer delight manifests itself in reduced churn and increased quality. It’s a trust that reps are smart enough to go for the bigger picture when given a little more flexibility.

  2. Dave Bratcher

    You are exactly right, in that many of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle. I have been guilty of using that as an excuse to why radical change can’t happen. Kudos to you for writing this, admitting where we find ourselves, and challenging us to work on changing the part we can.

    Although, the view from the judgmental balcony is quite comfortable…and quite stale too!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Dave, love that term… “view from the judgemental balcony ;-)”

  3. Jonathan Green

    Loved this post today Karin! Having spent the last five years partnering with and studying Zappos….it still amazes me how simple their approach is. Yet so many are afraid to truly commit like they do to make a difference in people’s lives. To Pattis point, Command and Control is the comfort zone if Corporate America.

    The reality is that Zappos is firm on execution. They rally around their core values and do not deviate. In fact they have more discipline on execution than many Command and Control organizations.

    A new age of service and leadership development is upon us. The ones willing to escape out of their comfort zones and truly try unique approaches will lead the pack for others to follow. It’s not about doing what Zappos does. It’s about being adventurous to do what you do differently and in a way that involves the whole village, not just a select few at the top.

    I will check out more of Chips work…looking forward to it!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Jonathan, I thought this one would catch your attention 😉 You could have written this one better than me. Thanks so much for expanding the conversation to include their culture of execution. Yes! This is not about letting people off the hook, it’s about inspiring them to tap into their own creative forces to accomplish more.

  4. Alma Escamilla

    A culture of delight and surprise, I want this thing, it made me feel like dancing (bad surprise)!! To start, the picture struck me as powerful. I mean, I can see bananas suspended in mid-air. We seem to appreciate clean desks and order, what if visitors come, LOL!? Why? The picture itself sparks a thought. It’s the most beautiful clutter I have ever seen, makes me so uncomfortable and then I saw the video, they have graffiti on the walls, oh dear! As all have commented, I love this post! Thanks Karin, hope all is well………and surprising!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Alma, I want this thing too. And at the same time, I am often the “visitor” folks are looking to impress. It’s about as complicated as that crazy desk 😉 I did like Chip’s question to ask reps. That one seems like it could be useful in almost any environment.

  5. Ali Anani (@alianani15)

    Karin- super post. I wonder if the desire for command and control is related to the upbringing style, to the desire to hide some deficiencies, to the egoist feeling that one is a greater thinker than others or to to the lack to develop and learn. I have an instinct that people who are not passionate about nature tend to use command and control style. The arrangement of leaves in trees, the flock of birds, the orderly scattering of ants and the school of fish do not have a command and control managerial style. The Law of Nature is against it.

    • Karin Hurt

      Ali, you’ve got me really thinking on that one. Nature. Maybe leaders need to take more walks in the woods… observing. Thank you.

  6. cindy navarino

    Love Jonathans comment regarding the entire village. Frontline employees of today need to have the ability to create their own interaction with customers structure rules and scripts pull them down confines and restricts. Nothing wrong with having a genuine straight forward conversation when exchanging with a customer . Throw in enjoying yourself on the frontline and having FUN with your customer while handling a business need priceless. I’ll take this over command and control any day. And doesn’t nature awake to play every day with all of us ..You bet!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Cindy, love your way of thinking. And yes, play and fun are natural… and are such an easy way to forge connections.

  7. LaRae Quy

    Great post, Karin. I’ve heard before that fun and surprise are key elements to engaging both employees and followers (customers). I think the word “play” has been restricted to schoolchildren for too long…maybe we need another word but play is exactly what Chip is talking about introducing into the corporate culture. Playfulness energizes the mind, elevates mood, and changes attitudes. It starts with the way we dress…button down suits are sort of downer right out of the gate. It continues with the office atmosphere and the way meetings are held. My question: can play be “relegated” to a certain time of the day?

    • letsgrowleaders

      LaRae, hmmmmm… now you’ve got me thinking. We might just need another word for play at work…. let’s think on that one together 😉

  8. David Tumbarello

    Zappos wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for the customers.

    This goes for leadership as well.

    This post reminds me of something I read about during my college days, written by Tony Schwrtz. His concept was that the communicator can only succeed by tapping into experience of the receiver. My success depends on my ability to provide you an image or concept that is already inside you. If I can tap feelings and emotions that are already inside you, I succeed in striking this “Responsive Chord”.

    This is the same thing with leadership. It is not about me giving you my motivation, my hierarchy, my priorities. It is about my being able to tap into yours.

    I like your point about Cracker Jack. It’s about the surprise inside. I like Double Tree Hotels. I have no memory about the comfort of the bed or the room, but I remember the cookie. They tap into my Responsive Chord because a cookie is no longer a cookie. It is connection with family, warmth, mothers, and everything simple when we were young.

    • letsgrowleaders

      David, YES! What an important point about leadership… connecting and tapping into possibilities in others. Thanks as always for expanding the conversation.

    • Dave Bratcher

      Awesome addition with theDouble Tree example. I too am a fan of the cookie!

  9. letsgrowleaders

    Dave and Dave, I always have mixed emotions about the cookie 😉 By the time I get to the hotel room, I’m tired and hungry and I eat it… and it takes wonderful…. and yet…. I think, “ugh, I shouldn’t have done that 😉

  10. Greg

    I also have mixed emotions on the cookie and given how late I check in, I often turn it down. But it’s the act of offering it to me that sticks in my head. It’s that small sense of “wow”; of differentiation that makes Double Tree’s strategy so unique and such a winner.

  11. Steve Borek

    “they don’t have the guts to pull it off.” EGGSactly

    It takes moxy to go against the grain and do something totally off the wall. The reason why most managers/leaders won’t try it is because they’re afraid to fail. Or, they’re afraid of what everyone will think.

    Zappos employee manual is written in cartoon style. There’s a video on youtube that describes their process.

    After you work for Zapps for a month or so, they offer you money to leave. That’s right. Depending on the significance of your position, they offer you a check to check out. Why? They only want people that are all in to be on their team.

    Can you imagine incorporating this idea into your new hire policy? Most would never dare try.


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