Volume 12, Issue 3 - May/June 2010

Customer Service
tips for quality service

Undercover Boss: What a Show!
by Carl Tompkins

Isn’t it amazing how many channels are made available through your television viewing provider? Even more amazing is how few shows are available that provide a reasonable level of entertainment or education. I must say, however, that CBS really hit a home run this season with the airing of “Undercover Boss,” which, by most all critics’ assessments, has been a real success. In fact, the New York Daily News referred to “Undercover Boss” as, “simple and brilliant” and “an hour of feel-good television for under-appreciated workers.”

Wake-Up Call
For those of you who have not seen the show, the idea behind it is for top executives of large companies to go undercover, in a disguised manner, and take jobs within their own companies and interface with their own actual workforces. These top executives typically learn three things during this experience:

• the difficulty of various jobs that are far below their own positions;

• the deficiencies of their corporate systems, policies and procedures that employees count on for support; and

• probably most important, they get to know their people, who are their front-line producers of products and services.

Within the first season, nine companies were filmed, ranging from waste management companies to 7-Eleven to 1-800-Flowers, and not one top executive failed to return to his/her office, following the one-week stint of undercover work, learning how little he/she really knew about his/her employees and the real problems they face every day trying to make their boss happy. The best part is that every executive was humbled by the experience and took action to improve his/her organization. The response from employees was overwhelming (and so, too, have been the national television ratings).

This show should be a wake-up call for all companies, big or small, to realize there is an enormous separation between the top and bottom in the organizations and, if more than one level of employee ranking exists within the company, then the risk of this separation is present. The outcome of this separation is that the top of the organization doesn’t really know what goes on at the bottom of the organization—and this can be a costly condition. While the buck stops at the top of any company concerning the responsibility of this problem, it is the neglected employees, who are never asked how things are going, or who are shot for telling the truth (not literally, of course), that will finally quit producing, resulting in a failure of the company.

This happens because top management is too isolated and insulated in its organization. Executives live in too small of a world by not creating means of interfacing directly with their lowest-ranking employees on a regular basis. This is the source of isolation. The factor of “insulation” is based on the political diffusion of communication up and down the ranks of management. Those closest to such executives are careful to say things the boss wants to hear in order to make the boss happy, even when such communication is far from the truth. This makes such people appear able to do their jobs without much supervision, able to attain great results, and step to the front of the line for the next promotion.

“Executives live in too small of a world by not creating means of interfacing directly
with their lowest-ranking employees on a regular basis.”

The Remedy
The first step of remedy is for the top of the organization to meet regularly with the bottom of the organization. The second step is for top management to participate in this exercise in a manner in which members truly learn the good, the bad and the ugly. Such participation requires not just doing the job, but asking good questions of employees and then listening carefully. You must remember that employees who share information, ideas and concerns want to make a better company. The third step is to take action on everything you learn and make sure that everyone in the organization knows about it.

The final step of remedy is to never quit doing this. These four steps resolve the issues of isolation and insulation, while causing everyone else between the top and bottom of the organization to work on the same continuum of truth.

Carl Tompkins is the Western states area manager for SIKA Corp. in Madison Heights, Mich. He is based in Spokane, Wash. Mr. Tompkins’ opinions are solely his own and not necessarily those of this magazine.

© Copyright 2010 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.