Leaders, Be an “Undercover Customer”

Most of you have probably heard of the new reality show “UndercoverBoss”, where a CEO goes undercover within his own company and discovers what working conditions are like for the average employee. Most of the newfound insights are related to the employee experience, i.e.,: “Gee, I had no idea how hard my employees work”, and “Wow, we sure do serve a LOT of coffee at our stores.

Great concept. Sure, every leader should manage by walking around, do regular site visits, and have a good understanding of internal processes and the work environment.

However, what about the CUSTOMER experience? As a leader, have you actually purchased your own company’s product or service as a customer?

I’ve heard this concept called “eating your own dog food”, although I hate that phrase. I prefer “drinking your own champagne”.

While this idea may not apply to all situations (i.e., if you work at a cemetery, or sell million dollar yachts), it probably does for more than you might think.

I’ll tell you how this played out at a former company:

I worked at an imaging company that was making the transition from film to digital. We hired a new president of our consumer division.
He soon discovered than most members of his executive team did not understand the basics of digital photography. This didn’t surprise him…. it’s actually pretty common. It’s very easy to be so focused on your specific function – manufacturing, HR, purchasing, accounting, etc… and find yourself far removed from the actual consumer experience. It’s even more common if the products or services are changing.

He established a program called the “Digital Photography School”. Every executive (about 200) from around the world was required to purchase a digital camera, take pictures, print them, send them to a website for processing, email a picture, and a list of other typical things we were expecting our consumers to perform.

These experiences are very different than the usual pre-planned, sanitized executive experience. If they had a problem, they had to call out support center, and get the same service any other customer would get.

The results were dramatic. The program not only created a heightened awareness of our products and services, but helped create a worldwide sales force that championed our products based on personal experience. It also drove product and process improvements, improved customer service, and carried the political clout to cut through the red tape to get things fixed.

The purpose of a program like this is not to catch employees doing something wrong. It’s to improve processes and products. However, another side benefit is that it can produce a “Hawthorne Effect”, where service improves just because someone’s paying attention to it.

You don’t need to have a formal program to be your own “undercover customer”. For example:

– Every senior leader should try calling their own customer service or technical support number.

– Every senior government official should try to apply for their own government service.

– Every senior college administrator should try applying to their own college, along with financial aid, and housing.

– Every airline executive should spend a week flying around the world in coach.

What do you think? Should every senior leader get out of the office and be required to experience their own product or service as a customer? Or would it do more harm than good? (-:

Note: Wow, this was my 500th post! I really had no idea.  I’m looking forward to the next 500.