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Lessons Learned From Hands-On CEOs

These CEOs prioritize direct customer interaction as part of their daily executive responsibilities.

Lessons Learned From Hands-On CEOs

The television show Undercover Boss exposed how much of a novelty it is for CEOs to interact directly with customers and employees. It is entertaining to watch executives (poorly) disguise themselves, then try to do the job of a front-line worker and speak directly to customers. This is because the phenomenon, though vitally important, is so rare. Too often senior leaders are hidden in their corner office or insulated from customers by vice presidents and other lower-level staff.

One easy way for top management to get outside their bubble is via social media. It’s a valuable tool to get the voice of the customer directly. However, reports that as of December 2014, a staggering 68 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs did not have a social media presence. And of those who did have a social presence, nearly half use only LinkedIn, a social platform made more for corporate networking than for customer interactions. 

Social media is just one way for CEOs to reach outside the executive suite to listen to customers and gain valuable customer feedback. Others include answering customer service calls, walking the floor of retail stores, and asking for happy or unhappy customers to contact them directly. 

Not all CEOs are guilty of avoiding customers. Some relish their opportunities to interact with customers, gather valuable insight, and gain the customer point of view. Here are some examples of CEOs who operationalize customer interactions as part of their daily executive responsibilities. 

Seeking shopper suggestions
Direct outreach has the power to build lifelong brand advocacy. For Stormy Simon, president of, staying in touch with the customer means maintaining open communication with the front line. Simon empowers customer service reps and social media managers to come to her with exceptional situations so she can chat with customers one-on-one and actively rectify the problem, maximizing speed and minimizing dissatisfaction. 

Lessons Learned From Hands-On CEOs

“Talking to our customers is my favorite part, and I don’t get to do it nearly enough!” says Simon, who began her career in the customer care department. “It makes me the happiest when someone says what they’ve bought looks great, or that something went wrong with their order, but their customer service experience went great. In fact, you could say I’m obsessed.”

During one interaction, a customer, Ms. Jones, called to say she’d received the wrong item—a rug that cost more than the one she’d originally ordered. Simon praised Jones’ honesty. While she could’ve come out ahead by never reporting the error in the first place, Jones told Simon that she never would’ve been able to look her children in the eye knowing she’d taken advantage of the company that way. After resolving the issue, Simon and Jones kept in touch. Jones sent her a picture of what the correct rug looked like in her home and the two even became Facebook friends so they could engage regularly.

When Simon can’t interact with customers herself, she depends on her customer care team to bring her vision to life. “My story here started early on, before e-commerce really existed, so I had the opportunity to work and build the department from within,” she says. “It’s easy for me to go to the source because I know where the source is. I never want to be too far removed from the customer care department. I will never forget my office on the customer care floor because I always want an office there.”

Simon also emphasizes that great service isn’t just about doing what the customer says simply because they say so. Great service, experience, and trust come from developing and implementing a fair and balanced system that all customers can respect. Only then will everyone benefit from a customer-centric approach.

OfficeMax co-founder Michael Feuer adds that customer feedback surveys and sentiment analysis tools can only do so much. There are certain insights that business leaders can only get by speaking directly with their customers. Feuer says he frequently paid unannounced visits to his stores to speak with customers and observe the service they received himself.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned from running businesses is that your employees tend to tell you what they think you want to hear,” Feuer says. “If you want to know what customers really think [about your business], you have to speak to them yourself.” 
Before Undercover Boss existed—which Feuer says he enjoys watching—the OfficeMax co-founder would exchange his suit for a pair of jeans and a shirt and “hang out in the aisles” at one of his many store locations. “It was rare for anyone to recognize me and I would speak with customers as they were shopping,” Feuer says. “I’d ask what they thought of certain products and if they made a good suggestion, I would introduce myself and follow up with them to let them know we’ve implemented their suggestion.”

One of the insights Feuer received from speaking with customers involved returned merchandise. Many people were returning equipment because they weren’t told beforehand that it needed additional parts like software or batteries. “I took that problem back to my team and the solution we came up with was to include a checklist of everything you needed for that item,” Feuer says, “We saved millions of dollars that way.” 

Feuer also occasionally answered customer service calls. Sometimes he answered calls using an alias and told callers that he was an assistant or a technician and would pass their messages to the CEO. “I’ve learned that sometimes people get flustered when they’re talking to the CEO,” Feuer says. “But they’re more relaxed and more likely to tell you what they really think when they think you’re just an employee.” 

Today, as founder and CEO of Max-Ventures, an investment firm, Feuer continues to go undercover when visiting prospective businesses. “Before I invest in a business, I’ll speak with the dock workers, drivers—anyone who can help me get a better understanding of the company,” Feuer says. It’s also important to ask open-ended questions. Instead of asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no, “ask how does this product help you or how could this service be done better and have an actual conversation,” Feuer advises. And finally, “have fun with it,” he says. “Some CEOs think this is beneath them, but there’s a lot you can learn by stepping out of the office or your role and simply speaking with your customers.”

Customers are the next technology innovation
As of July 2015, there were more than 5 million mobile apps available for consumers and businesses across multiple device platforms. This very crowded space makes it hard to stand out, even with a killer app. The CEOs of Green Pal and YouMail leverage their differentiator—their customers—by prioritizing customer outreach as part of their daily activities. It’s a way to gain insight to get ahead of the competition and create the best experiences possible for their users.

“In the tech startup world, you want to tilt the odds of success in your favor, and voice of the customer helps you do that,” says Bryan Clayton, CEO of Green Pal, a mobile app he describes as the “Uber for lawn care.” Currently available in four U.S. markets, the app connects consumers with local landscaping vendors, which the company also assists with payments, scheduling, marketing, and other business services. Clayton explains that 90 percent of customer support is conducted through in-app chat, which is monitored by live customer support employees 14 hours per day. And for at least one of those hours each day, Clayton is in the hot seat. In addition, he reads transcriptions of all the chat conversations that he misses.

Like Feuer, when Clayton mans the support desk, he doesn’t tell people he’s the boss. He lets the conversations naturally happen. “Nothing replaces that one on one conversation,” he says. “You can have good lieutenants in place, but nothing replaces when you go do it yourself.” Interactions range from thankyous and questions about appointments to complaints about the app’s functionality and suggestions for improvement. It’s here where he says he learns about any gaps in customer expectations. “Being confronted with the customer reality allows you to make smarter bets on what to do,” he says. “It keeps me grounded in customer logic,” rather than company logic.

For example, though the app presented information about the price quote, Clayton noticed that many users still asked about it. So his team reconfigured onboarding emails and changed the website text to make it more prominent. “This was an important part of the value proposition that we weren’t aware of,” he says. Even a small adjustment can have a positive impact on the user’s overall experience.

In addition to complaints and problems, Clayton asserts that it’s important to use direct customer feedback to identify positive voice of the customer, too. “It’s hard not to look at customer support as a complaint line,” he says. “But if [customers] didn’t care, they wouldn’t talk to you.” That’s why direct customer interaction is so important, especially in the volatile high-tech space. “It’s easier to hole up and build what you want to build, but 99 percent of the time that doesn’t work,” he adds. “The only way to navigate to success is to look at customers and satisfy their wants and needs aligned with your business objective. You can get information with data, but nothing replaces qualitative voices.”

You could also call Alex Quilici a hands-on CEO. He runs YouMail, an intelligent answering service designed for small businesses that replaces voicemail with apps and computer programs. With more than 7 million registered users, it has evolved greatly since its inception seven years ago, thanks to customer feedback. “Listening to customers helps us understand what we could be that we’re not,” he says. 

Quilici budgets at least eight hours per week, “20 percent of my time,” to listen to customers or close the loop on issues he discovers from customer interactions. He is active on the company’s Twitter page, posts and replies on Facebook, checks support tickets, and is copied on every email that the company sends out to customers. To go one step further, all email replies go directly to him. He said he takes it seriously that customers take the time to respond, so it’s important to talk to them about their issues. “I don’t rely on other people to collect customer feedback and have it bubble up.”

He suggests that more CEOs may not engage directly with customers because they consider it to be about handling complaints, which is a low-level issue. He counters that complaints are valuable, and can also open the door to further conversation about what’s good, and even generate new ideas.

And like Clayton, he cautions not to rely solely on metrics when the voice of the customer is available. In one example, metrics showed that YouMail’s transcription feature was extremely accurate, with only a handful of unhappy customers. Yet when Quilici talked to those unhappy customers, he found out that the tool made mistakes with names—“the one transcription error that drives people nuts,” he says. The company made improvements to the feature, which improved adoption of the tool and overall satisfaction. “You need metrics, and you need to talk to people.” ?