Going Undercover To Understand Customer Behavior


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Lori Childers, Vice President Client Solutions, Verde Group

“You can’t understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes.”

It’s a timeless and powerful call for us to be more empathetic, one we’d all do well to remember more often in our personal lives. But it also turns out it’s also an indispensable way of thinking if you’re trying to give your organization an edge.

A decade ago, the successful TV show Undercover Boss put this simple philosophy to the test, revealing it to be an effective CX insight tool for business leaders. As CIO Magazine reported at the time:

“… leaders who focus solely on the balance sheet can’t succeed. If executives only look at numbers, they can’t make the most of honest feedback, recognize the limits of their knowledge or avoid repeating mistakes. When leaders see their shortcomings as a chance to learn and grow, they gain the ability – and credibility – to help others do the same.”

It’s an insight that underscores a reality many of us too often ignore. As Jeannie Walters, CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators™ by 360Connext has written: Executives often have no idea what their front-line employees go through on a daily basis to get the job done.”

But the fact is, it’s not just senior executives who are often out of touch. Mid-managers just a level or two removed from the customer experience also quickly lose an appreciation for what’s really going on.

So, short of becoming a reality TV star,

  1. Be a secret shopper: If you’re able (and you won’t get recognized), visit one of your retail/store locations, order, buy or demo a product, eat the food, stay in a hotel room – experience whatever your company does just as your employees and customers do. If it’s likely you’ll be recognized, ask your spouse or partner, relative or friend to go undercover and report back.
  2. Call customer support: Phone-in with a real or pretend issue and see how it’s handled. Take note of how easy or hard is it to get through the IVR prompts, the wait time before reaching a live person, whether you have to repeat yourself multiple times and the rep’s knowledge level. Was the customer experience painful or pleasantly easy?
  3. Go online: Visit your company’s website and look for products, services or assistance, Click the “contact us” link or try a live chat. If you’re in retail, try buying or returning a product online. Was the experience smooth, infuriating or somewhere in between?
  4. Go online (part 2): Google your company and then add “complaints” or “problems” to the search phrase. While it’s true many internet comments are over the top and a handful of customers’ complaints may not be indicative of a larger problem, an online reconnaissance mission may give you a level of awareness about an issue you can validate by chatting with employees on the ground. (Here’s an example: I recently spoke with a hotel general manager prior to an upcoming stay and mentioned, “I read on TripAdvisor that Platinum level guests were very disappointed with the breakfast” to which he responded, “Oh, I’m not familiar with what people say on TripAdvisor.” This gave me pause. Really? The negative TripAdvisor comment was from a top-tier guest only a month before and he hadn’t seen it or cared to see it?)
  5. Go online (part 3): While you’re surfing, if applicable to your industry or company, check out online reviews for your top competitors – see what they appear to be doing well or badly.
  6. Cascade down to staff below you: You likely can’t do all your own Undercover Boss espionage. That’s okay – encourage other members of your team to try 1 to 5 and report back.
  7. Self-score your NPS. Calculate the Net Promoter Score for your own company or brand – on a scale of 0 to 10, how likely would you recommend it to others? Are you a Promoter (9-10), Passive (7-8), or a Detractor (0-6)?
  8. Do your stealth work once or twice a year every year – products, services, and attitudes change. Make sure you stay on top of what’s happening on the front line.

Remember: bolster your undercover work with research

Finally, consider complementing your anecdotal investigating with market research that focuses on your customers’ problem experiences – as opposed to just customer behavior and attitudes, which are really the outcomes of the bad experiences you want to nip in the bud. A baseline study, followed by ongoing tracking and Verde’s methodology focusing on drivers of dissatisfaction, can give you useful quantification of the impact bad experiences are having on customer loyalty.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that what makes an experience good, neutral or bad is how we interpret it. Two different customers may experience the same issue but have wildly different reactions depending on their temperament, personal history, and circumstances. Proper research can help you better understand what are simply personal preferences versus big problems.

Together, market research and creative first-hand investigating can offer you powerful insights to help you uncover where you’re falling short and how to fix it. So, get out there and be your own Undercover Boss to understand customer behavior (no wig and fake mustache required).