The TV show Undercover Boss might be primarily for entertainment value, but can we take a serious business lesson from the often corny but strangely addictive show?

While we’re shedding a tear as the benevolent boss gives Jheanelle from accounting money to pay her mom’s medical bills, and Andrew in customer service gets a free holiday and a college fund for his daughter, we’re also seeing the benefits of leadership getting their hands dirty and understanding their business, employees and customers from the outside-in. This method is also valued by some of the biggest brands in the world. 

It made the news recently that new Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan picked up barista shifts as part of his onboarding with the organization. Five years into his tenure, Uber CEO Dara Khosroshahi started delivering food and pickup rides for Uber.

Other than the PR generated by C-suite executives emerging from their proverbial bubbles, it seems there is value to deepening understanding of the front lines of organizations. Although the average leader probably won’t need the facial prosthetics or questionable wigs, perhaps the answer is to lean into approaches that increase the empathy that decision-makers have for those for whom they’re making decisions. Then, find concrete ways to turn those anecdotes into action. 

These days, optimizing brand and marketing strategies can feel like swimming upstream in a world of algorithms and performance data obsession. In order to make better brand decisions for long-term growth, it’s crucial to find the real people in the data and the stories behind the statistics.

And sometimes the insights that emerge highlight shared challenges between front-line employees and the customers they serve (which is a great sell to a CFO: solve two problems with one initiative). 

There are three key reasons for gaining a deeper understanding of the reality of the front-line experience of your brand:

1. Once you see up close, it’s much harder to unsee

While more aggregated or quantitative data is important (let’s say in this case segmentations, brand trackers, employee surveys, etc.) what they don’t give you is a sense of the individual experiences that led to those NPS score (Net Promoter Score) or other feedback on your brand or experience. 

What anecdotes lack in statistical significance they easily make up for in their ability to travel across an organization quickly. 

Your teams will start to refer back to these stories and design their actions with real people in mind, not just abstracted personas. You won’t necessarily change your entire strategy based on a handful of customers, but stories can be a powerful tool for highlighting the nuance behind the performance data your brand is tracking.  

When Dara became the Uber driver “Dave K,” he saw how frustrating the issues that drivers had flagged for a long time really could be and directed his teams to speed up their efforts to shift the experience.

2. The first step to identifying solutions is to make sure you’re solving the right problem

Seeing customer experiences up close can also help your teams ask the right questions and add clarity and specificity to a brief that they’re trying to crack.

For example, a telecom provider was looking to tackle a redesign for their fiber installation team uniforms to align to a brand identity evolution. Instead of approaching this as a pure visual design update, the design team went for a ride-along with the installers to take a more human-centered approach to the redesign. What they found were ways in which the uniform was functionally failing – not enough places in the toolbelt for the right instruments and many trips back and forth from the customer home and the install van. This inefficiency in the customer experience frustrated employees and customers alike and revealed the emotional failings of the gear. This gave the brand design team a sharper brief to make their work more impactful to customers and the business, not just the branding.

3. Insights from customer stories can create more internal dialogue and break down product and brand marketing silos

When leaders start to hear less-than-favorable stories about a customer experience, they often come back with a lot of questions: why is the experience we’re providing so far from what our brand promises? Why did we make the marketing/finance/operations decisions we did? Do we lack the data? Do our people need training? If handled the right way, these questions can start to illuminate what internal teams need to deliver. Those teams have likely asked for those resources before, but now leadership might have more urgency (and a business case) for taking action. 

A happy side effect of getting closer to customers is getting closer to your employees, their needs and how they also need to be engaged.

The best brand roadshows and trainings I’ve led have not just communicated new brand attributes or design guidelines, but started a conversation about why in-house marketers, designers or product leads are struggling to land their briefs and connect with customers. These conversations surface internal challenges that have to be addressed — with new tools, templates or ways of working — to give the brand and customer experience the right foundations. 

Of course, for reasons of calendars, cost or comfort levels, not all organizations will send out the CEO or even CMO on customer experience fact-finding missions. But the principle of the Undercover Boss approach can still be applied by brand leaders. You don’t have to don a fake mustache or scrub the floors to find ways to get out from behind the proverbial desk and understand how the real world of your brand matches up to your intent. 

Cover image source: fergregory