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Outlier’s Path

A Complaint is a Gift

We previously shared how Zappos’ return policy was saved by analyzing data at the extremes and putting them side-by-side. Over the years, this technique has been valuable in making business and process improvements. When we examined the best-converting product pages next to the worst-converting ones, we discovered the quality, number of photos, and richness of reviews separated the two groups. When we put our best-performing email campaigns next to our worst-performing ones, the presence or lack of a hero image defined the two groups. These discoveries pushed Zappos and the e-commerce industry to put photos front and center on their product pages and creative campaigns.

The same technique is also helpful for looking at our most satisfied customers next to our least satisfied ones. We’ll find a set of customers who seek our value proposition and another left wanting, which is unsurprising. We can lean into strength and continue to do what we do for our happiest customers, or it may be necessary to improve for our least satisfied customers to ensure our weaknesses do not become a grave liability. Accomplishing the latter is hard without direct feedback, and we found at Zappos that feedback from customers whose expectations we did not meet was invaluable.

At Zappos, we adopted Janelle Barlow’s philosophy, “A Complaint is a Gift.” Complaints did not make us feel warm and fuzzy. They highlighted specific areas that required attention with insights into aspects of the customer experience and guided us on where to focus energies. Furthermore, when customers complain, it expresses trust and belief that we can resolve the issues to meet their expectations. So many improvements at Zappos came from direct customer feedback from our least satisfied customers. When we went out of our way to fix the complaints of our least satisfied customers, they became our raving fans and made heroes out of our Customer Loyalty Team.

Our product team investigated each complaint further and found the same underlying issues thousands of times elsewhere. Without complaints, we would have been unaware of these issues and how to improve. These statements appear truisms, but how often do we dismiss an isolated complaint as an anomaly rather than a canary in the coal mine suggesting a broader problem?