Featuring Brian Kershon
Director, Global Customer Service at Zenni Optical
On this episode of Radically Personal, we hear from Brian Kershon as he discusses the work he and his team are doing that has landed Zenni Optical a place on Newsweek’s top customer service companies five years in a row.
As an online-only business, Zenni Optical faces unique challenges compared to those of traditional brick-and-mortar stores. But that hasn’t stopped them from receiving consecutive customer service accolades from Newsweek. Listen in as we discuss the company’s overall CX strategy and their dedication to ensuring everyone at the company — including Zenni’s CEO — understands the importance of both the customer experience and the customer service hero experience.
“Our customers are at the center of everything that we do. All the decisions that we make, the customer is at the forefront of it all.”
Director, Global Customer Service, Zenni Optical
Joseph: I am so excited to introduce Brian Kirson to our Radically Personal listeners. Brian is a Director of Global Customer Service at Zenni Optical. Welcome, Brian.
Brian: Hey, Joseph. Great to be here.
Joseph: I am so looking ...
Joseph: I am so excited to introduce Brian Kirson to our Radically Personal listeners. Brian is a Director of Global Customer Service at Zenni Optical. Welcome, Brian.
Brian: Hey, Joseph. Great to be here.
Joseph: I am so looking forward to this conversation. We’ve been partners now for several years, but I want to start with a huge, happy 20th anniversary. Last week was a big milestone, so congrats on that.
Brian: Thank you so much. We are incredibly proud of this milestone. It’s a great story, and I am sure we’ll get a chance to talk a little bit about how Zenni got started, but to see where this company has gone over 20 years and knowing what’s still ahead of us, it’s just amazing. And for me to be a small part of that story.
Joseph: Don’t be humble, big part!
Brian: No, I appreciate that. There’s a great sense of pride being part of Zenni, and as excited as we are about what we’ve achieved in the last 20 years, we start looking ahead and where we see ourselves as a generational company. It’s going to be an amazing story yet to come.
Joseph: I love it. Well, let’s start actually with the founding story. It is a unique story, founded in 2003, which was a really hard time to start companies for anyone that’s my age.
Brian: Our age.
Joseph: Yeah. It was a couple of scientists. I mean, the founders were scientists, but maybe just share what was the mission, what was the idea?
Brian: Yeah, it’s really the great American dream here. We have Tibor Laczay and Julia Zhen. Tibor is from Hungary, Julia is from China. They’re both scientists. And back in 2003, they were in the North Bay where Zenni still is located today. And what they wanted to do was not necessarily create an online retail optical company. What they wanted to do was solve a problem.
Ultimately, that’s what drove them to create Zenni. But they were looking at, how do we solve a problem, and how do we make the world a little bit better? And what they recognized was that the optical industry was long overdue for disruption. Folks are having to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to buy prescription glasses. And Tibor and Julia recognized that that’s just asinine. There’s a way that you can do it smarter, more efficiently, and more cost effective. And so that’s ultimately what started this great Zenni story – how do we solve for that problem? And as Tibor and Julia would say, they understand that everyone has a right to be able to see better.
Joseph: This idea that everyone has a right to see is a great founding mission and to do it, that means making it really cost effective for people, which is really important. There was some story, the original company name was not Zenni, right? What was it? I read it somewhere but I can’t remember. It was $19 glasses.com or something like that?
Brian: Yes so what happened was they realized that we could sell glasses for cheaper than $19.
Joseph: Wait, wait. So they started the company, it was like $19 glasses.com
Brian: With the idea that glasses would be.
Joseph: It would cost $19.
Brian: Yes. And this is the beauty of owning the manufacturing to the retail side from end to end. Zenni owns everything, so it helps to be able to drive down costs. We’re able to pass those savings onto our customers. So what became $19 glasses became $6.95 glasses. And so the name changed. And to this day, we still, you go on the site, you can walk out of here with prescription glasses for $6.95.
Joseph: That’s amazing. It’s totally amazing. I just checked, it was $19eyeglasses.com.
Brian: That doesn’t necessarily ring doesn’t it.
Joseph: Zenni is a way better name.
Brian: I don’t know if we stuck with that name. If we would be where we are today.
Joseph: By the way, the URL still works, so you can go to it and it does redirect you to Zenni.
Brian: Look, I already learned something new on today’s podcast. It goes to show that Tibur and Julia from the jump, were thinking about their customers and understanding that there’s a real fundamental issue with people being able to get affordable, high quality eyewear. And we’ve been able to solve that 50 million pairs of glasses later.
Joseph: 50? Five zero?
Brian: 50. Five zero.
Brian: So you think about this mom and pop company starting in their garage in San Rafael 2003. Here we are, 2023. We are a global company.
Joseph: It’s amazing.
Brian: Yea, so 50 million pairs of glasses later. You can’t go anywhere in the Bay Area without seeing Zenni branding, we’re with the 49ers for example. There’s so much going on. It’s been a really exciting time. And for me, I joined in 2020 right before things started to shut down. Just seeing in the last three years the amount of growth that we’ve gone through, again, it’s amazing. It’s just been such a fun ride.
Joseph: And the other thing that I want to talk about, obviously, because we’re so focused on customer service, not only have you all been able to deliver high quality glasses super affordably, but you’re consistently ranked as one of the top customer service companies, period across all industries. So there’s this Newsweek report that you and I have talked about. I think it’s been for five years in a row now as one of the top companies providing customer service. To be ranked on that list with just some other awesome world-class brands is amazing. What are maybe a couple of the secrets to that success of how you deliver on not only the affordable, high quality glasses, but the experience is really great. What are some lessons?
Brian: Well, we like to joke that when we won our fifth, I proclaim that we are the new dynasty in the Bay Area, not Warriors. So Steph Curry, step aside.
I mean, there obviously is a great sense of accomplishment being recognized not just in the eyewear space, but across e-commerce as one of the best customer support organizations over the last five years. And I think what I’m most proud of is that each year our score has gotten higher. And that’s really at the heart of what we’re about here at Zenni from a CS standpoint, is improvement. We always feel that there’s an opportunity to keep getting better, and I think being recognized by Newsweek Magazine is a way to validate a lot of the effort, the time that we’ve put into our strategy here at Zenni.
I don’t think there’s necessarily any major secrets to being good at customer service. I think what customers want is high quality support. They want it relatively fast. They want it at their disposal when they need it, where they need it. I think we’ve done a really good job of building out our support to meet our customers where they’re at. So providing support for Zenni is much different than, let’s say we were a T-shirt company.
Joseph: It’s more complicated.
Brian: It’s much more complicated. I came into Zenni with no optical experience, so there’s been a huge learning curve for me. It’s not like any other industry.
Joseph: You have to have a prescription, then you’re picking out something that’s part fashion. There’s all healthcare requirements. It’s a little more complicated.
Brian: Yeah, there’s a lot going on. And the fact that we’re doing it online versus your traditional brick and mortar business model, customers are used to being able to go to the local mall. They go and they talk into an optician, and they start to put on different glasses and see how does this feel? How’s the weight?
How does this sit on the bridge of my nose, the fashion piece of it, all that stuff comes into play to ultimately land on a decision that the customer is going to feel confident that they made the right choice and that for the investment, the financial investment that they’re making.
So we’ve tried to take some of the best principles that come from that brick and mortar experience, but then roll it into this e-commerce space. So our agents are highly trained. We really work very closely with our in-house opticians, and we’re able to create that confidence that we want our customers to be able to have. And so I think getting back to the question of what’s our secret sauce? I think some of it is just what we would expect in any customer support organization. But I think another part of it is that we have really made a huge effort to become subject matter experts in the world of optical.
Joseph: And it shows. What’s interesting is if you go to zennioptical.com, you have four things on the homepage that you highlight, 50+ million glasses sold, 140,000 reviews, a 30 day plus peace-of-mind returns, and then award-winning customer service. So as an outsider, I do think that you have a unique view on the importance of service related to experience and loyalty. And I’ve had the chance to connect with Julia as well. And you and I have talked about this started, she did customer service when the company got started.
I do think that there is a unique thing when the CEO of the company has done the job. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Brian: No, sometimes it’s not a good thing. But, Julia, she loves telling the story. In 2003 the company was just getting off the ground. You have to be scrappy. And so part of her responsibilities, one of many, was taking calls, and that lasted for about two weeks. And then she realized, I can’t handle it. But that experience, and again, the fact that 20 years later she still goes, when she meets new employees, we have an offsite, she’ll go back and tell that story. And I think it speaks to how important the customer experience is to Julia. And really for Zenni as a whole.
Joseph: I think that the thing that’s powerful about the fact that Julia spent time there, is I do think that service permeates through the company. I think that one of the keys for folks is not to think of service as a department, but a corporate ethos. Do you know what I mean by that?
Joseph: And yeah, that comes clear. And every single time, whether I’m talking to you, obviously that happens, but when we talk to your tech team, when I talk to Julia, it’s just I think that her experience and the team’s experience in those early days being on the front lines, there’s just an empathy and an understanding of the importance of loyalty and delivering on these great experiences that you guys just, you live it and breathe it every day.
Brian: Our customers are at the center of everything that we do. All our decisions that we make, the customer is at the forefront of it. So whether, to your point, it’s not a customer service piece, it’s a company piece. So whether it’s working with David Ting, our CTO or Errol Pinto, our Head of Digital Product, if we’re talking to our marketing colleagues, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s about our customers. And so when you have that as your anchor, it’s amazing what you can accomplish and to be able to recognize what our customer needs are, right?
We’ve gone through great effort to build up our voice for the customer program. We really want to be able to understand where our wins are and where we may be falling short, right? 20 years in, we still know there’s plenty for us to learn about our customers. And we’re always looking at, how do we innovate? How do we start leveraging more on the technology side? Which, has been really exciting partnering with David and Errol and looking at ourselves as a technology solution as well with all the really exciting things that are happening right now and generative AI. And we’re always looking at automation. And one of the reasons why we love partnering with Gladly is because you guys look at it the same way. The days of ticket-based solutions have gone out the window.
Joseph: That was so last century. I tell everybody tickets were the 20th century. Welcome to radically personal service. That’s the 21st century.
Brian: Right? And so being able to partner internally and everyone having that core belief that our customers are what drive our decisions, then it’s much easier for us to be able to get alignment across the board as we’re, again, if we’re looking at how we can leverage some of the latest developments that are going on out there. It’s such an exciting time right now. And we see the partnership, for example, with Gladly as a way for us to take that next step forward in terms of how we want to show up for our customers.
Joseph: Yeah. Well, as you know, we value the partnership immensely, and I’m glad we’re getting to share a little of the story today. Since you brought up the partnership, if you could just maybe share, we didn’t know each other before. We didn’t know the companies didn’t know each other. I don’t think we knew any of the people. What were some of the things that, I won’t use their name but the other ticketing system that you had before, what were two or three things that sort of really drove your decision to move to a platform like Gladly?
Brian: Sure. It really started with our workforce, with our agents. It was listening to them and hearing their pain points, their growing frustration with some core issues like duplicate tickets, something as simple as that, that we couldn’t solve for, which was causing a lot of unnecessary effort. And it was a point of frustration for our agents. But I think having that feedback loop with our team, we have a global team, and being able to hear from them directly, be able to shadow them, see how they’re using the tool, it became abundantly clear to me that change was required.
Joseph: So it was your support team experience that was a big driver.
Brian: Yea, if you take care of your team, they’ll take care of your customers. Right. I mean, we’ve all heard that before and it’s really true. And so I wanted to make sure that we had the right solution in place to empower our agents to be able to give them that level of visibility that they need, that 360 view of our customer to make things at their fingertips where they weren’t growing frustrated. Because that comes across, if you’re frustrated with the tool, I don’t care how much empathy you have, and you could have the patience of a saint, but eventually it’s going to come across and we want our agents to be excited about the work that they’re doing, and for us to be able to remove any of those blockers that might get in the way of their ability to deliver amazing customer service. So we started looking, and I was not familiar with Gladly going into the search. But we connected and you have an amazing team.
Joseph: They’re the best.
Brian: I think you know how fond I am of Kristen and Mike and Andy, and then Julia – talk about a small world – Julia, our customer success manager. We used to work together at another company years ago. We were both at Spark Central Oh, funny. For a few years actually. And I’m like, okay, this is meant to be.
Joseph: Oh, that’s awesome.
Brian: I really do think I would be doing a disservice if I wasn’t listening to our team, the folks who are in the tool day in and day out, and we reached a point where we knew we needed to move on. It worked out great. And we’re now talking to you.
Joseph: So one of two things I want to say about that. One is we have this talk internally about what are the magic gifts that we gladly provide to our customers to you? And you hit on a bunch of ’em, which is one, this idea that it’s about people, not tickets, and that’s really important.
One of the other ones is this idea of, how do you turn agents into heroes? Because, your comment of if you can make your team productive and happy, yes, there’s efficiency that comes from it, but the efficiency is a service towards better experience. That’s the ultimate value. If you deliver a better experience, you’re going to drive more loyalty. And loyalty has been shown to be the single biggest driver of long-term company success, profits, repeat, purchase, all that good stuff. And I just think it’s great to hear that that was the driver. Usually, oftentimes people, it’s like, well, we were looking to save money. No. Thinking about how you turn your agents into heroes? I love that story. It’s great.
Brian: We take great pride in being able to provide a level of support that we feel is a differentiator. We recognize that for a lot of customers, the concept of buying prescription glasses online is totally foreign to them. Especially during the pandemic, and that’s when I started, I started about six weeks before everything basically in the U.S. shut down.
Joseph: That was just a crazy, crazy time. Oh my gosh.
Brian: It was. Our U.S. team was an in-center team. Within 24 hours, they were working remotely. I mean, I still remember the team being onsite and we’re packing up computers and lenses and all this stuff. And our team, for the most part, did not have experience working remotely. So it was a learning curve and getting them comfortable using some of the new tools that we were going to have to leverage to really stay connected.
I think of it in terms of, just as I think about our organization and where we were and where we’ve grown, I mean, again, we went from in-center to being completely remote. And now we’re at a point where as we’re growing our team, particularly here in the US, the notion of bringing people back into the office, we’ve moved past that. It’s a new world now. Which is exciting because we’re able to widen the funnel. And so we’re talking to candidates all over the U.S. and it was a very tough time, obviously, but it also created a lot of opportunities for us here at Zenni.
Joseph: Let’s continue on this theme of people, because yes, technology is important. I mean, I’m biased in that regard, but your team and your people, ultimately, it’s the people. It’s your product that you use. What’s the process of recruiting people? What’s the process of onboarding and enabling someone to be a hero at Zenni?
Brian: Sure. Well, I like to think that I have a good eye for talent. So I think it starts with getting the right people. Ultimately, I feel like with customer service, it’s in people’s DNA.
Joseph: So on this topic of team and this idea of turning agents to heroes, talk a little bit about how you recruit people and how do you enable them to be Zenni heroes, if you will. Are there certain questions you ask people when you’re recruiting them? Is there a favorite type of question you ask people? And then how do you enable them once they get there to become Zenni heroes?
Brian: Well, I think it starts with, we have a great recruitment team here at Zenni. I think, as we’ve talked about, it’s a great story. So for folks who have never heard of Zenni before, and this is their first time getting exposed to it through the interview process, it’s such an easy sell. We have an amazing culture. It’s a product that you can feel proud of, right?
Again, it comes back to we’re doing good in the world. So I think what it does allow us to draw people who are cut from the same cloth, people who want to do good, people who want to help others. I think we have a good eye for talent. I think once we get them in, we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that we create a structure internally to support our team. So from an onboarding standpoint, learning and development, from tools and systems, we make sure that when people come in, everything they could possibly need is available to them.
I think we have very strong people managers on our team. Again, folks are able to join and feel like they’re getting the support and the coaching and the mentorship that they need. We’re very clear in terms of setting expectations. I think we find a really good balance between having fun and working hard, which I think is critically important. We spend so much of our life working so better find a way to have some fun in the process.
We trust our team. We hire people knowing that we’re going to empower them to make the right decision, make the right decision by the company, and make the right decision by our customers. And that faith that we put in our team, I think allows people to come in and feel like, okay, they can feel the support. It’s not just something that, these are not things that we just put on our walls and you know, we walk the walk. We don’t just talk the talk. And so when our agents join, or anyone within our customer support organization, they feel like they can make a difference. And that’s what we look for.
I’ve worked in this space for 12 plus years, and I’ve seen the good and the bad that comes with contact centers. And I’ve always made it a mission of mine that our agents feel the support and they feel empowered.
Joseph: Yeah, that’s great.
Brian: And I think that just goes such a long way. Morale and just the affinity that they have for the brand. And then our customers, they sense it. They feel it creates a really just great dynamic between our team and our customers.
Joseph: So the name of the podcast is Radically Personal. One of the questions I ask everybody is to share something radically personal about you that most people don’t know. So Tom Montgomery, of Chubbies and Solo Stove now, shared on the podcast that he was about to become a dad. And another person, Frankie Littleford, shared her first concert she went to. What’s something radically personal about you, Brian, that people probably don’t know?
Brian: Sure. I think one that might be interesting to your audience is I did not grow up dreaming of one day being a head of customer service. As much as I love what I do, I could not think of doing anything else and I would not want to do anything else. But I grew up wanting to play for the New York Mets or for the New York Knicks. And then I quickly realized that being 5’9” on a good day was not going to work out well for me to fulfill those dreams.
Where I saw my career, where I saw my life going was in law enforcement.
Joseph: Oh, interesting!
Brian: Yeah. So my two uncles who are now retired, are both NYPD, my cousin, he’s also retired now but was NYPD, so I thought that’s where I was going to go.
I have a very high moral compass, and I wanted to do something where I felt like I was going to be able to make a difference, and I’m a big believer in right and wrong, and I wanted to be in a position where I could advocate and support those who maybe couldn’t do it for themselves. And so in high school, I won an award for an essay contest for our civics class in San Mateo County. You had to write an essay on why you wanted to be X role or position, so you wanted to be mayor or whatever it was. I wrote mine on being chief of police. I actually won. So I got to be chief of police for a day, which was really cool.
Joseph: Did you book anybody? [Laughter]
Brian: No. I wish I could have though. I have a few people on my list. And then in college, same thing. I went to UC Davis and did an internship with the Davis PD.
Joseph: That’s amazing.
Brian: I got accepted to Graduate School for Criminal Justice. I went to John J. School of Criminal Justice. I’m sure you’re quite familiar being a fellow New Yorker. And I went there and I was miserable. I decided, I think I got so used to living in California, and I went there, and I just wasn’t ready for it, to be perfectly honest. And so I decided, okay, this isn’t for me. And it wasn’t that I grew sour on criminal justice. I just was ready to come back home and I decided, okay, it’s time to kind of change paths. And ultimately, I tap back into what is it about criminal justice that drew me in? And it comes back to wanting to be able to make a positive difference, to be able to problem solve.
Joseph: What’s interesting about wanting to be in law enforcement, the goal for you was about helping people.
Brian: That’s right.
Joseph: Who needed help. So you’re in the same mission, just a different vocation, which is really, it just gets to the core of you, which is a great story to understand Brian a little better.
Brian: Yeah, no, absolutely. Again, I was able to still get that sense of fulfillment, but now I apply it in a different way, and I couldn’t be any happier with my choices. And it’s
Joseph: Turned out okay.
Brian: Yeah, it turned out okay. I’m happy with my decisions.
Joseph: That’s awesome. Well, Brian, I want to just say a huge thank you to you, the whole team for the partnership, and obviously thank you for spending some time on the podcast sharing some of your stories, and I look forward to another 20 years of great success for you and the whole team at Z. So thank you so much.
Brian: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Joseph: This is awesome. Great. Take care, Brian.
Read the full transcript
ABOUT THE HOST
With a proven track record of building companies that don’t settle for the status quo, Gladly CEO and co-founder Joseph Ansanelli is reinventing customer service to put people back at the heart of it. Joseph is also a Partner at Greylock, focused on investing in enterprise applications.
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