The 2009 Influential Leaders - The Casual Cobbler

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When Tara Hunt met the head of online retailer Zappos.com,Tony Hsieh, the guy was so unassuming she thought it was a prank. The author of The Whuffie Factor soon learned that Hsieh's casual and egoless nature is only one reason he's not your average CEO.

Taking the reins in 2000, Hsieh restructured Zappos.com not from the ground up, but rather from the inside out, with a focus on the company's internal culture. "Tony is a systems thinker," Hunt says. "He's the kind of person [who] understands that when you make a change within your organization, whatever is shared and believed tends to seep out to the customer.... [He's] very intentional about how he built the culture.And that's evident in everything-in how he hires, how he trains, the work schedule, the operations, down to the shoes the employees wear."

One of the core tenets of the Zappos.com culture is delivering what it calls "WOW" experiences. Customer service is not just a department-it's the company's backbone, and Hunt says that's evident when touring the company's Las Vegas headquarters. Customer service is literally everywhere, with service agents dispersed throughout the office.

Zappos.com became the poster child for customer experience and social media engagement. It's hard to go to a conference these days and not hear about the company-its satisfaction ratings, its engagement with social media,or Hsieh's transparency through blogging and Twitter.

Hsieh's vision scaled with Zappos.com, but can its reach permeate something larger? That's the hope of Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com's founder and CEO, who decided to plunk down nearly $1 billion in July to buy not only Zappos.com but Hsieh, who's staying on to run the unit. During an eight-minute video announcing the deal, Bezos repeatedly credits Hsieh and his team for their fixation on customers.

"Zappos has a customer obsession which is so easy for me to admire," Bezos says in the video. "I get all weak-kneed when I see a customer-obsessed company.... That culture and the Zappos brand are huge assets."

"Huge" is right: Here's hoping Hsieh keeps providing a billion dollars' worth of influence.

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