Tuesday, April 6, 2010

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.


Amy Wilson said...

Great ideas and congratulations on 500 posts, Dan!

Miki Saxon said...

Great idea, Dan. It should be mandatory for the bottom 50% of customer service surveys. But what would we do if we didn't have constants such as Comcast at the bottom year in and year out. That's one of the few things you can count on these days.

Congratulations on your 500. I remember how I felt when I hit that number, I'm over 3000 now, but hitting one of those milestones still give me a chill.

Keep on writing!

Leadership Styles said...

Great post.Thankyou!

Duncan Brodie said...

Excellent post and many congratulations on your 500th post.

I receive the alerts direct to my mail box and am consistently impressed by the quality of the content.

Keep up the great content

Duncan Brodie
Goals and Achievements Ltd

Dan McCarthy said...

Amy -

Miki -
Wow, 3000!! You rock. Thanks.

LS -

Duncan -
Thanks, I'll try.

Unknown said...

Excellent idea! When I was in college I assisted the area manager of a restaurant chain and he paid me to have dinner at the restaurants and write up reports for him. He specifically asked me to order a drink as I was under 21 to see if they would serve me. It worked well and as a poor college kid I had one good meal a week!

Unknown said...


I think this is something that should be done at least once for all executives, leaders, and even employees within a company. This will provide benefits within the company for the leaders and employees.

The executives will better understand the issues that employees face each day, product quality, etc. The employees will know where some of the company products are not meeting customers needs.

At a company I worked for, we routinely had employees and some leaders try out our products in the field. I think it makes a big difference and its the right idea.

Noel said...

I think this is a great idea. However, it's important that leaders use the experience to emphasize what they find "right" about their employees, not just what needs to be improved. I worked for a company that used "secret shoppers" to manage quality, and it can lead employees to feel like their being spied upon or not trusted. The key is to make them part of the process and part of the solution.

Dan McCarthy said...

Shari -
Sounds like a great job!
The concept I'm suggesting here isn't really a mystery shopper program. The idea is for a leader to actually use thier own product or service in order to develop a "customer mindset". It's not to check up on employees.

Yung -
Right, that's the idea!

Noel -
Thanks. Again, I'm not talking about spying on employees, or hiring spyes (mystery shoppers). It's about the leader walking in the customer's shoes.

Anonymous said...


Great post! I agree that every leader should get out of their comfort zone and go in the front line to experience their own product and service as a customer. Personally, I think this will provide tremendous positive feedback that would help to improve their product and service. As you have mentioned that the side benefit of this can also produce a "Hawthrone Effect". I can only see the upside of such practice. Unfortunately, not many executives have taken such action. Thanks for another great post.

Very Best Regards,

Chris Young said...

Great post Dan! It is funny how something so simple and so obvious can be so roundly ignored by so many managers and leaders!

Thanks for the reminder to get out there and start seeing things from our customers' point of view. I've shared your post in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2010/04/the-rainmaker-fab-five-blog-picks-of-the-week-1.html) to help get my readers thinking about the customer experience in a new way.

Be well!

Dan McCarthy said...

Jason -

Chris -
Thanks, I really appreciate that!

Unknown said...

Very interesting Dan. I definitely like the idea of making executives learn about their products from the standpoint of a customer in an uncontrolled environment. It seems way more productive than just teaching them about the products in a half day seminar.

Throughout high school and college I worked at a grocery store. We had "mystery shoppers" who would critique the store on a whole list of items. Since you didn't know who they were, it was always in your best interest to give every customer the best customer service. This seems like a similar concept, but I definitely like the idea of executives doing this themselves. It definitely has more of an impact when you experience it yourself than when you read about it on a monthly report.