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Jeff Bezos and the Shoe-Store Owner: How to Build Instant Rapport With Your Customers

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How the CEO of Amazon used rapport to persuade Zappos to sell
  • Four steps to building rapport with your target market

In April 2009, Tony Hsieh, founder of online shoe retailer Zappos, traveled to Seattle for a meeting with Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos to discuss the potential sale of Zappos to Amazon.

Though Hsieh wasn't enamoured of the idea of selling (he had already rejected Amazon's first approach in 2005), he felt it might be the only way to save his life's work.

In the midst of the 2009 financial crisis, Zappos's board of directors, trying to safeguard its cash flow, wanted to cut back on the corporate-culture spending that was consuming valuable resources. For Hsieh, however, that was not an option. His whole business philosophy revolved around investing in and building a strong corporate culture.

"It would have reduced our expenses in the short term, and I don't think our sales would have suffered much at first," Hsieh said. "But I was pretty sure that in the long term, it would have ruined everything we had created."

Hsieh's Dilemma

Despite Hsieh's conviction, the board remained sceptical, and the discussions were deadlocked. That sparked fears the board might fire Hsieh and hire another CEO willing to take a hard line on profitability versus company culture.

"The threat was never made overtly, but I could tell that was the direction things were going," Hsieh said.

Hsieh and Alfred Lin, Zappos's CFO and COO at the time, started searching for a way to resolve the situation. Selling the company and starting another one wasn't an option because; as Hsieh pointed out, "Zappos wasn't just a job; it was a calling." Their only option was to find new investors and buy out their board of directors.

Amazon's Second Attempt

At that point, Amazon approached Zappos for the second time. Initially, Hsieh was reluctant, fearing that Zappos was just another shoe company to Amazon.

"If we sold, we'd probably be folded into their operations, and our brand and culture would be at risk of disappearing," Hsieh said. But Lin was a little more optimistic, and he convinced Hsieh that since Zappos had proven its cultural philosophy via its commercial success, Amazon would likely allow Zappos to run its own show.

And that's how Hsieh—still unsure whether Amazon was the right buyer—ended up in Seattle, standing across the room from Bezos and reluctantly giving his presentation on Zappos.

But as he stood there, doubtful and unsure, something amazing happened that alleviated much of his doubt and changed the mood of the whole situation.

The Defining Moment

"Toward the end of the presentation," recalled Hsieh, "I started talking about the science of happiness—and how we try to use it to serve our customers and employees better."

Bezos, completely out of the blue, remarked, "Did you know that people are very bad at predicting what will make them happy?"

Hsieh was blown away. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Yes," he cheerfully replied as he skipped to the next slide, "[and] apparently you are very good at predicting PowerPoint slides." Those were the exact words on Hsieh's next slide.

That was the defining moment that put Hsieh at ease, making him feel confident that Amazon might actually be the one, and finally providing that connection he so badly longed to feel with a potential investor: "After that moment, things got comfortable. It seemed clear that Amazon had come to appreciate our company culture as well as our strong sales."

On November 1, 2009, Amazon bought Zappos for $1.2 billion (based on Zappos's share price on the day of closing). Bezos had nailed what every salesperson works so hard to build but seldom achieves—true rapport.

The Power of Rapport

The lesson here is clear: Strive to see the world through your prospects' eyes. Put yourself in their shoes; learn about their problems, their culture, and their ways of doing things.

Here are three ways to build instant rapport (in print and in person).

1. Do your research

Find out what is important to your prospects. It may be money, it may be getting the job done right, or it be may something completely different. Who would have thought that the most important thing to Hsieh was company culture and not money?

When you talk about the specific problem the prospect is facing, you build an instant connection, which makes selling easier.

2. Use the right language

Speak to your customers in their language. Are you pitching to big corporations? Use big-business terminology, such as "seamless," "core competencies," and "customer centric." Are you selling to teenagers? Use words such as "kool," "bling," and "lol." Selling to Australians? Use "g'day" and "mate."

3. Use the right images

If you use images in your marketing material (brochures, posters, websites, product packages, etc.), use images that feature not only people who are attractive (or otherwise appropriate for the situation) but also people who are in your target market.

Selling to teenagers? Use pretty teens on your packaging. Selling to an older demographic? Use happy, smiling seniors on your marketing material. Selling to Asians? Use images of attractive Asians. You get the idea.

* * *

If you can learn to speak your customers' language, so to speak, you can build that ever-elusive rapport—which is just a fancy word for the glue that creates and holds relationships together: trust.

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Aman Basanti writes about the psychology of buying and teaches you how you can use the principles of consumer psychology to boost your sales. Visit to get his new e-book—Marketing to the Pre-Historic Mind: How the Hot New Science of Behavioural Economics Can Help You Boost Your Sales—for free.

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  • by Jennifer Kelly. Mon Sep 26, 2011 via web

    Aman, thanks for the reminder that we need to "trive to see the world through your prospects' eyes. Put yourself in their shoes; learn about their problems, their culture, and their ways of doing things."

    I KNOW this, it's just so easy to have it slip from the front of my mind.

  • by Randall Seefeldt Mon Sep 26, 2011 via web

    Thank you, Mr. Basanti. Very good advice. You do present, though, one suggestion I'd like to rebut: I can't accept your admonition to tailor the language to the target demo - "'kool,' 'bling,' and 'lol'" in communications with teenagers, and so on.

    From my experience, it's very risky to assume that any group of contemporary consumers, even teens, is naive enough to accept as genuine any adult in a transactional setting calling them "dude" or using the word "bling," or someone like me - a New York-born Midwesterner - calling an Australian "mate." It comes across as disingenuous, as pandering - because it is.

    Far more effective, I think, to acknowledge the target demo's intelligence, social savvy and ability to phase-shift into a more formal or more universal speech pattern when they're receiving a business or sales communication.

    I think combining your suggestions one and three with a SINCERE interest in and respect for the target audience's needs and intelligence would yield a more effective formula.

  • by Aussie downunder Mon Sep 26, 2011 via web


    Great blog, except the tip to use 'g'day' and 'mate' when selling to Aussies - that's the worst bit of advice I've read in awhile. 'Mate' is passable, however 'g'day' isn't really going to hit the mark with any demographic these days, except maybe when targeting international travellers to come to Australia.

  • by Tony Tue Sep 27, 2011 via web

    I agree completely with Randall. Great article, but I strongly disagree with tailoring the language. I have often been on the receiving end of sales calls where the salesperson, who I have seldom or never met, calls on me as if we're long-lost buddies from way back. That is so transparent and disingenuous that it instantly creates a feeling of distrust before the actual sales pitch is even made. A much better approach in my opinion is to simply conduct yourself, and communicate in, a professional manner regardless of the prospect/audience. If you know what's important to them and do a good job of communicating how you can address those issues and solve the problems they have, you'll be successful.

  • by Roohi Moolla Tue Sep 27, 2011 via web

    I guess you're saying "How Jeff Bezos put himself (inadvertently) in Tony Hsieh's "shoes"?" LOL - that's that best pun I've heard all day!

  • by Marc Wed Sep 28, 2011 via web

    Very good advice.for a student like me

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Wed Sep 28, 2011 via web

    @Roohi Moolla That's hilarious! The shoe certainly fits...

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