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."
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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