I recently attended a speaking engagement with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, and am currently reading his book “Delivering Happiness.” I’ve been a follower of Tony’s for some time now and think he has a lot of brilliant things to say, but there was one message from his talk that really resonated with me.

As anyone who has had experience with Zappos knows, outstanding customer service is what Zappos hangs its hat on. Several years ago Tony and his team made the decision that delivering excellent service was going to be the thing that set Zappos apart, but they also made the decision that they weren’t going to advertise it. As Tony says, telling customers that you offer really great service is just a bunch of empty-sounding words – you have to let them experience it over time and trust that the word will spread.

That message struck a chord with me because it made me think about how much time we, as vendors, spend trying to jam our messages down our customers’ throats rather than focusing on the experience we give those customers and letting them come to their own conclusions.  Especially in an industry like survey software, which has low barriers to entry and therefore a long, ever-changing list of competitors, I feel like there’s this urge to bombard customers with lists of features, comparison charts, and loud messages proclaiming why our product is so much better than the others.

And I’m not entirely guiltless – it’s easy to get swept up in competitive frenzy and lose sight of why you’re in business in the first place. That’s become especially true in this 140 character world we all now live in where we’re given less and less time and space to make an impression or deliver a message. But I think Tony’s message about Zappos’ customer service drives home two important points.

First, exemplifying your message and points of differentiation through your actions and interactions is a lot more effective than just throwing empty or impersonal statements at potential customers. I get really irritated when I see someone post a question on Twitter or LinkedIn asking for suggestions/opinions on a certain product or service and the replies are obvious vendor cut-and-paste jobs. Social media sites are great source of leads, and I’m not suggesting that companies shouldn’t utilize social media conversations to try and generate business. But, for Pete’s sake, at least make an effort to understand who that lead is and what they’re looking for rather than just blindly pasting the same feature comparison chart or impersonal message over and over. That’s just noise that’s going to fade into the background.

The voice of David Meerman Scott, a brilliant marketer and speaker, is constantly in the back of my head telling me “Nobody cares about your product, except you!” He’s absolutely right and I think that statement goes hand in hand with Tony’s message about showing, not telling, customers what it is that makes you special. For me, both those messages boil down to basic human interaction between customers and vendors. If all it took to sell my product was a feature list or a great landing page, I would have exited the game a rich woman long ago. Customers don’t want a feature list – they want their problem solved or their need fulfilled. And the customers that are going to be most valuable in the long run are the ones that understand the value of a company that takes the time to understand their needs and translate them into practice. I strongly believe that companies that invest in people who actually care about making their customers successful and happy are going to win out in the long run. As a developer of software solutions, I can’t ignore the importance of feature lists and performance statistics, but I also refuse to ignore the significance of human interaction and consultation when it comes to closing a deal and retaining customers. Feature checklists, testimonials, and stock images don’t portray the real value of a product, service or company. Sales and support people that show through their words and actions that they actually give a crap about their customers do. And the moment we start trying to sell a feature list instead of solving a problem or fulfilling a need, we’re finished.

Another point that Tony makes is that customer opinions are living, changing, and pliable. The Zappos team knows that they have to deliver excellence each time they have a customer service interaction and, even then, that it may take time to reap the rewards of those interactions in terms of repeat business and referrals. The customer relationship is something that needs to be nurtured and cared for by everyone who has the chance to interact with that customer. Every employee in a company should be considered part of the sales team, because in one way or another, every employee has the ability to impact customers’ opinions of that company, which in turn impact future sales and referrals. Customer relationships are marathons, not sprints that end in a purchase order. Building a company culture that embraces and understands that point is critical to long its term success.

If you haven’t read “Delivering Happiness” or anything by David Meerman Scott, I highly recommend you do. Either way, I’d love to hear how your comments and your own take on delivering excellence to your customers!