Back to the Floor, Boss

Undercover Boss is a British reality television series. Each episode features the experiences of a senior executive in a high management position at a major business going undercover as an employee in their own company – often with hilarious results.

Now why would they do this? They do it to investigate how their firms really work, to discover and identify faults in the company, and to make improvements so that customers and employees become happier. Many of them get insights into demeaning policies and procedures that prevent people being the best, impossible targets set by managers, and counterproductive and puzzling things that nobody understands or supports.

At the end of their time undercover, the executives return to their true identity and request the employees they worked with to visit them in their real roles, where the bosses reveal their identity. They usually share their experiences and insights with colleagues, and reward hard-working employees through promotion, or financial rewards. Sometimes, poor performing employees are given training, better working conditions, or, in extreme cases, they are terminated. There is often a lot of snot and tears in each episode – not only from the employee but also from the boss.

I believe that it is the wish of every employee that their boss could be featured in this TV series.

Whenever I am interviewed in the media, in a panel, or by delegates in a conference, the most often-asked question is: How do we get this customer-driven culture right? I’m always looked at as if I have a silver bullet and a magic wand. Should companies change their processes, systems and software, or launch innovative new high-quality products and/or services? Should they upgrade their premises to make them more attractive, or fiddle about with the “right” price structure? Perhaps they need a new call centre? (Never!) Maybe they need to do more staff training. (Never enough.)

The right answer is always about leadership and people. And probably a lot of hard work!

Perhaps the kind of person that rises to the top of an organisation has the right skills and attitude to create success. We take the stars, the most ambitious and driven people with the greatest skills and abilities, self confidence and assertiveness, the people that are focused and results-driven, and promote them to the most senior positions… and rightly so.

But over the years I have come to doubt if more than a handful of these senior executives are the right people for customers. It’s almost as if financial performance and customer loyalty are mutually distinct and apart from each other. “You have to choose otherwise you will be all over the place,” one CEO recently stated to me.

He is wrong. The ROI of proper customer management is well documented, and if we see customers as “the enemy,” then of course the company will do poorly, and will have to try any tactics they can to squeeze as much as they can from long-suffering customers. With literally a handful of exceptions in the whole of South Africa, CEOs and senior executives pay lip service to customer care.

One of my favourite exceptions is the CEO of ER24, Mr. Andrew Boden. On one occasion we had scheduled a meeting together, and when I arrived he was wearing a bright red outfit with many badges and insignia. I wondered what that was all about, and he must have seen the look on my face. He explained that for at least two days every month he spent time with his teams, responding to accidents and emergencies, and spending time with the thousands of people at the front lines of this amazing company. Do I need to tell you how successful they are?

Another client of ours who prefers to remain anonymous, the MD of SA’s largest private ‘plane management company, also climbs in and literally offloads suitcases from airplanes when needed. During World Cup 2010 and Madiba’s funeral, many dignitaries and celebrities arrived in private ‘planes, causing havoc for the company, and there he was, helping out whenever and wherever he could. (There’s a lovely story about a wealthy American citizen who passed on a $10US tip and asked him, (the MD,) what he did around here.

“Well,” said our helpful executive, “I’m actually the MD of the company.”

A little taken aback, the American reached into his pocket and said, “In that case maybe I’d better give you $100US!”)

If you are a senior executive* of a large organisation perhaps reading this column, then please remember that it’s not about occasional speeches, nor about approving a budget and appointing others to make the company more customer-driven. Like those brave executives in “Undercover Boss,” it may be time for you to spend some quality time – a few hours every week – interacting with your customers and staff in your company, and dealing with the problems and difficulties they experience. There are also five additional questions you may like to ask yourself:

Are customer issues right at the top of the agenda of every meeting that you chair? (Are customer issues actually in the agenda?)

Does everyone in the company know that you will personally see every customer compliment and complaint that comes into the business? Or do you get a weekly printout that summarises which customers left your business in the last week?

How many times in the last year did you personally thank your delighted customers just for being customers, for additional sales, for paying accounts on time, and/or for giving you referrals or recommendations? Also, how many of your disappointed, complaining customers did you telephone or visit or invite in for coffee?

How many of your customers actually have your personal cell phone number? (Ditto for your staff members.) What percentage of all of your customers know your name? How many would recognise you if you walked into their homes or offices?

When last did you have your customer champions in your office to congratulate them on what amazing things they did for your customers? Also, when did you haul in the sorry butts of the staff who disappointed your customers and told them that their behaviour is absolutely unacceptable.

There may be a bit of fun and triviality in reality TV, but I think we can learn something valuable here.

*And if you are not an executive in your business, perhaps you need to copy this article and send it to all of the directors – anonymously, of course.

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