Anyone craving a little companionship in these socially distanced times need not buy a pair of sandals, pumps or wingtips as an excuse to have a friendly chat with a customer service representative at Zappos.
The Amazon-owned online retailer best known for its wide selection of shoes has encouraged customers to call the company's service line to discuss many things beyond footwear, whether that's a homework assignment, research question or myriad other subjects — no purchase necessary.
"Stuck in the middle of a project? Looking for services that are open in your town? Need someone to help you with research? We're here to lend an ear and help you make your next step forward," the company says on its website.
Zappos launched the call line, which is distinct from its traditional customer service hotline, in mid-April, as thespread around the U.S. The service is the brainchild of Brian Kalma, an entrepreneur and Zappos employee who noticed an increase in the amount of time customers were spending on the phone with the company's staffers.
"We noticed there were callers who had concerns and were wanting to talk. We started to see evidence of not just us feeling what was happening in the world, but also that callers wanted to talk about it," Kalma told CBS MoneyWatch.
The company's customer service reps were already well-equipped to speak with callers about their concerns. "We hired empathetic people, and that allowed us to repurpose our well-trained staff to help people beyond purchasing shoes," Kalma said.
It's a way of giving back while also helping the company gain insight into what customers and non-customers alike want right now.
"It allows us to uncover new truths and understand what problems people really have and potentially systematize a solution to recurring call problems," Kalma said.
It has also helped Zappos keep its employees busy and avoid furloughs as the number of product-related calls to its traditional hotline dropped. One thing it's not, however: A counseling service. Employees are trained to direct callers with mental health and other medical concerns to the appropriate resources.
Questions typically fall into one of three categories: help finding hard-to-find or sold-out items, what's open nearby and how to locate medical facilities. Specific queries include questions about where to find groceries and which local restaurants are open. Single parents quarantined alone with their children also have dialed in just to converse with other adults.
In all, roughly 400 workers have fielded more than 3,000 non product-related calls, according to Zappos. One unexpected outcome: Other companies are reaching out to Zappos seeking advice on how to run their customer service departments.
The program will continue indefinitely, Kalma said. "There is certainly no end date. The world is changing quickly, and we need to change just as quickly to deal with the uncertainty everyone is feeling."
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