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The Ethnography of Experience

Living in the Narrows: Mutual Misery and Relationship Building at Zappos

“Honestly, ‘narrows’ are the worst! It’s almost like the whole industry has conspired against people with narrow feet. My aunt has narrow feet like you, and I swear it seems like every other conversation I have with her is about her miseries related to them.”

-Madison, a member of the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team

This bit of talk was part of a presentation given by Micah Solomon at the CallMiner LISTEN2019 conference. Micah was making a larger point about how contact center personnel can engage with callers in a more personalized and empathetic manner. This is a topic he explores in his book Ignore Your Customers and They’ll Go Away. By listening to not only customers’ concerns and requests, but also treating those moments as human (and humane) moments, you can build the type of brand loyalty that makes for successful companies.

Buy this book

Buy this book

One the face of it, this interaction provided by Micah shows how Madison (the Zappos employee) is talking with a customer about the perils of having narrow feet. Madison creates empathetic alignment with the customer by talking about how her aunt has narrow feet, and it also is a problem for her. In one way, this can be taken as a bit of ‘small talk,’ some informal conversation not central to the task at hand, but useful nonetheless to pass the time and create rapport while they are moving toward some ultimate conclusion. However, the sociologist and conversation analyst in me always wants to dig deeper. If we take a look at the above example bit by bit, the social power of the small talk becomes a big deal.

First, Madison introduces her assessment of narrows with “Honestly.” Madison isn’t doing this to reinforce that she is being honest (versus deceitful). Rather, it is a conversational prompt that is signifying what follows: an assessment upgrade. It is likely that the customer made some comment about narrow feet being problematic. Madison not only agrees with her, but upgrades the assessment by saying they are “the worst!” Furthermore, we can surmise that the customer is a woman. Men can have narrow feet. But it is not generally expected that men will complain about their shoes and narrow feet. Madison conversational work of aligning with and upgrading the customer’s assessment positions herself as a woman commiserating with another woman about the perils of foot size and shoe fit. We are all in this together.

Do I have narrow feet? A helpful guide

Do I have narrow feet? A helpful guide

Second, Madison does a rather ingenious thing: she positions an externalized looming force (i.e. “the whole industry”) as having “conspired against people with narrow feet.” This conversational move accomplishes a number of things. First, it takes the customer’s negative shoe issue and potentially softens the moment with a bit of humor. It is unlikely that (in Madison’s words “almost like”) there is a conspiratorial effort to ruin the lives of those with narrow feet. The statement, however, does evoke some comical images of men in dark suits sitting around a conference table and diagramming how to ruin the lives of narrow footed people everywhere! You can almost see them if you close your eyes.

The statement also enhances the victim status of the customer. It is clear that the customer has demonstrated some mention of how her life has been made more difficult by having narrow feet. Madison runs with this, reinforcing the victim nature of the customer through an elevated agreement. It’s not just you! Your entire foot category has been targeted!

Third, Madison introduces another character into the narrow foot Greek tragedy: her aunt. Madison does not empathize with the customer through her own experiences. Nowhere does she mention her own feet. Rather, she talks about her aunt being “like you.” It might be the case that the customer is an older person, or close in age to her aunt (we might assume so). Using the aunt here creates greater alignment in terms of age status and shoe challenges. Madison saying that she has an aunt also demonstrates that Madison has a family, and is a person “like you,” dear customer, who also likely has family members. In this way, Madison shows she is just like anyone else. More alignment and less social distance between customer and worker.

Furthermore, we know that Madison has a close relationship with her aunt because she has numerous conversations with her. In those conversations, the aunt shares intimate details of her life, including the struggles that she has with her shoes and feet. Beyond being merely struggles, these experiences are “miseries.” Now we are imagining her poor, dear aunt limping around her daily life, shoes falling off, blisters forming on heels, perhaps a tear forming in the corner of her eye, while the world is the taking for those with ‘normal feet,’ who are after all preferred by the global shoe syndicate.

What Madison has under her conversational hood

What Madison has under her conversational hood

How do we know this is true? Because, after all, sweet Madison “swears” it. This is second type of ‘truth marker’ we have in this short bit of communication. And we know that Madison cares about the struggles of the narrow foot people because, despite the fact her aunt continues to bring it up, Madison is always there to listen. Given that Madison does not appear to suffer from this affliction, and that it still concerns her nevertheless, means that Madison is a real mensch.

Was Madison thinking about all of this when she uttered these words? Probably not. It is a lot to consider in the moment. But then again, perhaps she was. Being aware of what happens ‘under the hood’ of a conversation can tell us how to power the building of relationships.

Conversation analysis is a tool that can help us understand how to engineer better conversations to build relationships and rapport not matter the topic. As Madison shows us, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of speech to accomplish a lot of work. When we can engage in our conversations consciously and deliberately, we are in a better position to do as Madison does, and build better relationships with everyone in our lives.

Gary David
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