Interview with Chris Kraus, Gear Geek at RevZilla

The best way to find a job that you love is to match something that you’re passionate about with a skill that someone is willing to pay you for. For Chris Kraus, that meant combining his passion for motorcycles with his ability to form strong positive relationships with other people. He now has a job that he loves, and he found it in a place that many of us wouldn’t think to look: customer service.

Chris is a Gear Geek for RevZilla, a Philadelphia-based e-commerce company that specializes in selling motorcycle gear. The company operates an online store as well as their Philadelphia showroom, but in both cases, their focus is the same: creating a positive experience for their customers. For Chris, that means that hes just as likely to help a rider pick the perfect gear for their cross country trip as he is to handle an exchange or return. He gets to share his passion for riding with others every day, and for him, its hard to imagine anything more rewarding.

Chris agreed to talk to me about who he is, what he does, and what makes RevZilla the perfect fit for him. He also has some great advice on finding happiness at work, identifying an employer that shares your values, and developing positive customer relationships. Our conversation is below.

Kevin Spence: I’ve worked as a customer service rep. Over the years, I’ve known a lot of other people who have worked in that field as well. Of all the people Ive known, you’re the first person I’ve met who loved the job. What makes it such a great fit for you?

Chris Kraus: First, though it may sound silly, we are “Gear Geeks” and not customer service reps. A simple mental shift in how you think about your job can make all the difference in how you approach your customers.

Our Gear Geeks are experts in their field and look forward to talking to other motorcycle riders about a useful technology or an exciting new product. We all relate to our customers on a personal level because we share a common passion that we are excited about. It’s not all about angry customers! We have a vast majority of interactions that consist of just talking about cool stuff and hearing about our customers’ awesome adventures.

Beyond this, one of the biggest differences in our interaction with customers, as compared to other companies, is that every Gear Geek is equipped to not only address the problem, but to solve it. Many customer service reps in other industries are given a list of ‘canned’ responses or pre-determined ‘solutions’ to address every situation in a systematic way. If a problem arises, these representatives do not have the ability to go outside of the limited system or interface to which they are confined. Often companies refuse to trust their employees, worrying instead about how much money they might give away to disgruntled customers. On TeamZilla, each Geek is given very close to full access in regards to the toolbox of solutions that are available. You don’t need to ask a manager or get a supervisor to sign off on things. Each customer situation is different and it is important to find the solution that applies to that customer and not try to shoehorn a standardized response as a rebuttal to their problem.

Once a Gear Geek has clearly identified what has gone wrong, they have the power to go ahead and credit Zilla cash, issue a partial refund, give a Pre-Paid label or whatever it is that will turn that customer’s transaction experience into a positive one. Worst case scenario we are perhaps a bit too generous, but is that a bad thing? In the end, we have a happy customer which always outweighs any excess generosity.

KS: Clearly, your employer is a huge part of why you enjoy what you do so much. What are some of the things they do that make it such a great place to work?

CK: Absolutely, we have fun here. Just yesterday, we not only recognized, but observed ‘International Ninja Day’ at RevZilla. This consisted of several of our Gear Geeks (who are unofficially labeled as the Ninja Team, as opposed to our Pirate Team or our Cowboy Team) dressing up as Ninjas for the day, including Matt, one of the co-founders. There were throwing stars, nun-chucks, samurai swords all around and at the end of the day, we took turns swinging at a Ninja Pinata. I kind of accidentally beheaded the Pinata with my fists

The three co-founders of RevZilla.com all came from boring corporate environments before they started this wild rollercoaster ride. It was pretty early on that they agreed RevZilla would not turn into that kind of work environment. They continually reinvest in their employees both by taking the time to schedule fun events throughout the year (paintball, go-karts, Two-Wheel Tuesdays) and the money to make sure that you don’t end up at one of those mandatory Christmas parties that makes you pay for everything.

Because of this awesome culture, we have a much lower turnover rate than competitors in our industry. People love working here and do not want to leave. Personally, I plan on making this a career. You just don’t find companies that know how to have fun like this. On the flip side, because we have inspired, invigorated employees, we know how to hustle and get stuff done.

KS: Your career at RevZilla kind of happened on accident. Can you tell me a little bit about the events that inspired you to apply?

CK: I went to school for music and got my bachelors and masters degrees in music theory. After graduating, I bounced around several different jobs both in and out of the music industry. Maybe it was stupidity and a bit of naivety, but I actually quit several jobs in this period, when I should have been thankful that I at least had one in the post-2008 job market! None of those jobs fit me, though. Either they were poorly organized and unproductive, or they were overdriven and un-inspiring. I have principals that I hold to in life and many of these previous employers were directly or indirectly asking me to ignore them.

Summer 2010 I had just quit working as a crew leader for the US Census. That was the worst job I have ever worked for a myriad of reasons, but another story for another time. I was recently married, without a full-time job, and really just frustrated that there didn’t seem to be anyone worth working for. I know my skill set, I knew I could work in a lot of different capacities, but there needed to be a point to it all, not just a paycheck. I started looking for work from a different perspective: as a customer.

A few years earlier I had bought a motorcycle and purchased my first helmet from RevZilla, shortly after they started in 2007. The helmet itself was actually really disappointing; I was cheap about my gear at the time and only used it for 3 months before it fell apart and I upgraded to a better model. However, the buying experience was great! Anthony spent quality time explaining the features and function of the helmet, I ended up getting a great deal, and walked out with the perfect color that matched my bike. This was an in-store experience at RevZilla’s first location in Old City, Philadelphia. Little did I know that the entire company was run from their tiny apartment above the shop. That transaction was followed up several times that summer with more online purchases.

Flash forward to summer 2010. I was sitting at home browsing the web, sulking about not having a job and dreaming about motorcycle gear on RevZilla when I see a “We’re hiring in Philadelphia!” banner on the website. Sweet! I loved these guys and it seemed like a great place to work. By the end of the day I had submitted my resume online and in person at the South Philadelphia location. A few days later I was called in for an interview and the rest is history.

KS: From the sound of it, you think of yourself as more of a brand ambassador than a customer service representative. How does that distinction change the way that you approach your work?

CK: You are right, I do. I had the great benefit of getting a job at RevZilla fairly early on. We are only 5 years old as a company and I have been here for about half of that time. At this point there is only one other employee who has been here longer than I (other than the partners) and that is our General Manager, Patrick.

In my first year we were understaffed and overworked, but it didn’t matter because the atmosphere was fun and exciting. We were growing like crazy! Since then we have continued to grow at an exponential rate, in both sales and staff.

Looking back, I realized that between myself and the few others that worked as Gear Geeks at that time, we were able to shape and give life to the brand. The co-founders obviously set us on that track and all credit goes to them for building the foundation. They are brilliant guys, but the raving word-of-mouth advertising that we were getting for free from our super-satisfied customers was a direct result of our amazing customer service that is now raising the bar for our industry standard.

Earlier, I said that there had to be a point. If you think of yourself as a advocate of your brand, there IS a point. Each time you speak with a customer or interact with an order, that person gets a snapshot of what your brand is all about. Over time, this portrait is painted through thousands of customers. If you are consistent, and your team is consistent, then you are not only building the brand itself, but most importantly, you are building loyalty to the brand. We want our customers to be as passionate as we are about who RevZilla is and what we represent. Now, when customers are introduced to us, it comes with that reputation of excellent service and very real belief in what we do.

KS: Sometimes, taking calls all day can really wear you down. What do you do to stay motivated and positive about your job?

CK: The culture here has a lot of energy. I think this is probably the fuel tank that we always carry when we run low. If the daily grind gets tiring, there is either a fun event to look forward to, or a previous experience to reminisce about. In addition, there is so much change here as we grow that its really hard to get stuck in a rut. People who are resistant to change and unable to tap into the excitement of improving workflow don’t work at RevZilla.

Oh, and we have a gong! Like, a legit Wuhan, ‘handmade in china’ gong with a big mallet for hitting. This hangs in the center of the Gear Geek arena and gets smashed every time a really awesome review comes in that mentions one of the Gear Geeks specifically. In fact, it is one of our core values as a company: “Be Gong-Worthy.” It is especially fun very early in the morning before you are awake.

KS: No matter how great a company is, at some point they’re going to end up with some upset customers. And then they call you. Are there any relationship / communication lessons you’ve learned that might be valuable to others?

CK: We always try our best, but stuff happens for sure. The most important perspective I have learned is not to equate yourself with the problem. The customer calls with their problem in mind and will very quickly assign that problem to you or to the company as a whole if you are not careful. When I am speaking with someone who is frustrated, I try to get on the same side of the fence as they are. An example:

Equating yourself with the problem:“Sorry, sir, we don’t have any control over how long FedEx takes to deliver your package. We shipped it out on time, so you’ll have to call them if you have a problem.”

You have just deflected blame, but you have also become a brick wall. The customer won’t care that its a FedEx issue, she will just remember that RevZilla was not any help in assisting with her package.

Siding with the customer against the problem:“Wow, sir, that sounds really frustrating, I’m sorry that your package hasn’t arrived yet! I’ll be happy to look into this and let you know what I find out.”

In both cases, there is not much the agent can do, but in the second scenario, the customer will see that you are clearly aligned with them in finding a solution. In a word, people are looking for your empathy.

The first example ends when you hang up the call. The next time you hear from that person, they will be leaving you a nasty review. The second example requires more work. From there the agent will call the shipping carrier to inquire, look into the logistics, and end up calling the customer back. Even if the answer is still negative, the customer will be much more likely to appreciate the legwork that you have done and will realize that you are working for them, not against them. Also, that would be a great time to offer some Zilla cash as an apology for the delay (even if you didn’t cause it).

So in one fell swoop, we have not only handled the customer respectfully, but hopefully, we have opened the door for loyalty and a continued relationship with that individual. With any luck, they will also tell their friends, family, and fellow riders about their positive experience with RevZilla, expanding our ever widening circle.

Customers with issues are your best chance to creating raving fans. Run of the mill transactions can be excellent but they do not provide the opportunity to go above and beyond. Problems need solutions and give you an opportunity to leave a positive impression.

KS: Now that you know what it’s like to work for a company that treats its employees well, what advice would you give to other people as they’re trying to figure out if a company is a right fit for them?

CK: I think the keyword here is “Value.” Do you feel valued? Are you providing value to your company? Is your company providing a product or service that is valuable? If these are answered in the affirmative, then it comes with a sense of purpose, direction and a satisfaction around your employment. If your company provides a product or service that is run of the mill or easily duplicated, that is a different story. If your job could be easily replaced with a band of monkeys waiting in the wings to push the same buttons then it comes with an insecurity and an apathy towards your employer.

KS: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

CK: In our industry, people are constantly pushing themselves and their machines to go harder, further, longer into the extremes, whether it be temperatures, terrains, or sheer miles. The gear that we sell, and more importantly, the expertise that we offer in pairing a rider with his or her gear, give our customers the chance to conquer their own personal mountains (literally and figuratively!). You can purchase many of the brands we carry in many different places, but TeamZilla is unique in being the only group of Gear Geeks that can really teach you how to use it or recommend the right gear for the job. We ALL ride, and we all dream with our customers about pushing the limits.

For some, we may be enabling them to commute daily to work, save loads of money on gas, and decrease their carbon footprint. For others, we may equip them to go faster and lean farther on the racetrack. For me, some of the coolest stories to hear are from our ADV/touring crowd. Seeing pictures or blog posts of our loyal customers traveling from Boston, Mass. to Tierra del Fuego on two wheels it’s beautiful, it’s extremely challenging, and they love it, but it can’t be done in jeans and a t-shirt.

KS: What qualities or experiences would someone need to have if they wanted to do what you do?

CK: TeamZilla is pretty diverse, but if we focus in specifically on the Gear Geeks then it gets easier to define. You have to ride a two-wheeled machine of some sort. Perhaps in the future this might expand to watercraft or other extreme sports, but for now we do motorcycles so you have to be an expert. Your communication skills have to be excellent both over the phone and in writing. Plenty of riders can have stimulating conversation, but having the chops to put it in writing is crucial.

Aside from your personal toolbox of skills, it helps to be the type of person who appreciates customer service from the customer’s perspective. The majority of our employees started as customers, and we continue to attract applicants this way. Combine this with a level-headed mentality and a spark of random fun and you have a great fit.

KS: If you could offer one piece of advice to people who are struggling to find something that they can enjoy doing each day, what would it be?

CK: Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.

There are lots of working environments that are lacking the drive to succeed. Perhaps you could be the person to kick that off. It that is not an option, or is frowned upon by your corporate authorities, don’t be afraid to quit. I have resigned from half a dozen jobs in my relatively short professional life, but I have gained a fabulous employer and an exciting career path as a result. It is a risky move, but I would rather take the risk than wake up in 30 years and say ‘So what did I just spend my life on?’

It might be cliche, but its true find your passion. Your education gives you a skill set or a set of resources to pull from. It tells you what you are good at, but it doesn’t always give you your passion.

After seven years of music education I now work in e-commerce. I read somewhere that the average person works 90,000 hours in their lifetime more counting education. If your goal is just to make a buck and clock your time, you will miss out on a significant part of your life! If instead, you look forward to those hours and enjoy what you do every day, you will inspire a productive energy that will shape you into a valued employee. Chances are you will make a buck while you are at it.

Updated: 01/06/2011

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