Consider Yourself an "Undercover Boss"

by Jeannie Walters

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I was lured into a new show on CBS last night after the Superbowl was over and the kids were tucked in. Undercover Boss debuted last night and it was surprisingly compelling.

The idea is simple. A big-wig executive from a major corporation goes undercover for a week to experience what life is like for front-line and/or entry-level employees. Last night the company under the microscope was Waste Management.  Larry O’Donnell, President & COO, spent 5 days working in a recycling plant (where he couldn’t keep up with the conveyor belt), cleaning out portable toilets, helping with the administration and truck weighing at a major facility, hanging on the end of a garbage truck, and picking up trash at a landfill (where he was fired).

Let’s not fool ourselves; it’s reality television. So who knows what’s overblown or overlooked. But the idea remains true: Executives often have no idea what their front-line employees go through on a daily basis to get the job done.

He clearly was surprised by the insights he gained. As COO, he was shocked to learn there were policies and procedures in place he wasn’t aware of. One in particular was the “If you’re 1 minute late you get docked 2 minutes of pay” rule at the recycling plant. He saw that as an unfair practice and realized it had a truly negative impact on morale and ultimately productivity.

Another insight was watching how the policies he and his leadership team implemented made the jobs of the front-line workers more difficult and stressful. He watched as the truck driver had to cut time short with appreciative customers to keep on productivity goals. The negative effect on the customer experience hit him hard.

I was intrigued enough to set the DVR for the next several shows, because I think it’s a great way to stress how certain policies have a negative impact on employee engagement and ultimately the customer experience. Yes, productivity is important and should be monitored. But understanding the impact of those policies is just as important.

Recently, I’ve experienced a few things as a customer to make me wonder if the leadership really understands the impact. For example:

  • While waiting on the phone after a frustrating series of automatic transfers, my problem proved too difficult for the tech who finally picked up the call. While claiming to put me on hold, I was disconnected – not once but twice. I have to wonder if this is due to “time on the phone” being one of the top metrics tracked within call centers. It’s better for the rep’s numbers to disconnect me and claim a completed call rather than actually solve the problem.
  • After upgrading my cell phone, the rep at the store (who clearly didn’t know much about the product) stood there with the satisfaction survey in hand and asked me blatantly to fill out “all 10’s.” When I pointed out that it didn’t seem legit to ask me to do that, he said “That’s what the manager wants us to do.” Clearly, the data received from this type of practice is beyond useless, but more and more retail operations are asking us to meet their needs instead of ensuring they’re meeting ours.

So how can you be an Undercover Boss, especially in a smaller operation?

1. Call some customers randomly and ask about their experiences with your people. Be sure you share and reward those who are mentioned favorably.

2. Observe and engage with employees on the front-line on a regular basis. Ask for their input on how to improve the experience.

3. Provide truly anonymous ways to provide feedback without repercussions. Nobody wants to sit in a room for 4 hours discussing why employees’ satisfaction survey results are down – that’s just punishment with lunch thrown in.

4. Share the feedback you hear and connect with the people who can make a difference.

What about you? How are you engaging with employees to create a better customer experience? Are you connected? Will you consider going undercover?

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Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators, a global Customer Experience consulting firm. She has 20 years of experience helping companies improve loyalty and retention, employee engagement, and overall customer experience. Jeannie is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP,) a charter member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA,) a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, LinkedIn Learning instructor, TEDx speaker, and President-Elect of the National Speakers Association Illinois chapter. Learn more here.

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