Zappos probably means different things to different people, but to us at Orange Photography, we think of them as a company with a great culture and focus on customer service – two values we hold quite dear ourselves – so it was fun to finally get to check out the Zappos Insights Tour at their headquarters in Las Vegas.

While they are about to make a move to downtown, which is personally, my favorite part of Vegas, there was a lot going on at the offices and it reminded me of many tech companies here in the Bay Area.  It was interesting that many of the folks on the tour had never seen a workplace like this before since I had assumed that a lot of this type of more casual work environment had filtered out.

One thing you couldn’t escape was how integrated the core values and culture was critical to Zappos.  From standard things in the tech world like free food cafeterias and great benefits, there was also a lot of things they did that I hadn’t heard of in larger companies.  One of those things was that everyone in the company does four weeks of customer service training.  It doesn’t matter if you are the new CFO or a CLT, you go through this same training, and during the holiday crunch, everyone in the company (again from the top down) does 10 hours of customer service.  This reminded me of when I first met Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, who was still doing customer service even though the company had grown so much.

That service focus though, is what defines the culture at Zappos, and a phrase you heard repeatedly was “we’re a customer service company that happens to sell products.”  And the focus on culture is so huge that after the four weeks of training that kicks off everyone’s career at Zappos, if they don’t think they are a fit, they can quit right then, and Zappos will give them $4000 on the spot.

On the business side, I was interested in what motivated people at Zappos, and it turns out the benefits and culture are key.  The company itself was not profitable for a long time because of the benefits they had given to their employees, but that, combined with their culture has become one of their competitive advantages.

From a hiring perspective, they get 30,000 applications each year, and less than 1% of those folks are hired.  The #1 criteria for hiring?  It’s not qualifications so much as cultural fit.  As one employee told me: “everyone is respected for what they can do, and are empowered to create and innovate.”

From a photography perspective, they shoot everything in-house in the Kentucky facility, use real models to show how the clothes fit, and include the stats for the models so you have something to compare against.

A last piece of trivia:  did you know their longest customer service call to date (as of our tour on Feb. 6, 2012) was clocked in at 8 hours and 49 minutes, and that person didn’t even buy anything.  In fact, you can call their customer service line and talk to them about anything even – try it out: 1-800-927-7671.

Check out the rest of the photos we took (they allow full access via photo and video) in our online gallery here.