Zappos's three-week training course for call-center reps starts with telling employees to forget everything they've learned. That's partly because Zappos, a six-year-old online shoe retailer with $184 million in 2004 gross sales, isn't like many other companies. The training course's required reading? A 156-page handbook on Zappos culture, written entirely by employees themselves. In it, they quote Jimi Hendrix, praise the company-paid lunches, and tell stories about how they've felt empowered to help customers.
Chairman and founder Nick Swinmurn, who calls Zappos "a service company that happens to sell shoes," (it offers free expedited shipping and free returns) believes empowerment means more than giving employees free rein to solve customers' problems. It's the power to help make the company better. "You need as many eyes, ears, and hands working toward the same goal for themselves, not for someone else," he says. An entry in the Zappos culture book by James G., a customer loyalty associate since 2003, shows that employees get it. "I'm helping write the book," he writes. "We all are."
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A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.