CEOs do stints as low-level employees on Undercover Boss. Consultants say small companies can improve products and strategy by doing the same, but as customers
With a new bride and a startup company, 33-year-old Ted Sullivan has little free time. And yet he spends a good part of his week coaching Little League. "I've got a lot on my plate, so it's easy to think that I don't have 10-plus hours a week to be on the field with these kids," says Sullivan, chief executive officer of Fungo Media in New York City. He justifies it this way: Not only is volunteering fun, it's also research and development for his new company's product, an iPhone scorekeeping application for youth sports called GameChanger. Staying on the ball field "has been absolutely critical for building the product and keeping to our core philosophy," Sullivan says. "Living in that ecosystem allows us to stay connected to our customers." Most small business owners can't go undercover among their employees—as CEOs of big companies are doing on television these days on reality shows such as Undercover Boss—but they can learn a lot by becoming "undercover customers," says Andrea J. Simon of Simon Associates Management Consultants in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. She advises her clients to put themselves in their customers' shoes—physically, if possible—and then observe and record what happens. "The brain works better when it sees something without trying to resolve a problem or sell something," she says. Interacting with Your Own Products
Don Hubbard, president and CEO of The Niven Marketing Group in Carol Stream, Ill., and his executive team have spent five days over the past several months interacting with their own products and watching others do so. The $25 million, 40-employee business makes interactive point-of-purchase marketing kiosks, shelving, and displays for retailers and brands including Nintendo (NTDOF), Energizer (ENR), and Coppertone. Although the company has been in business nearly 40 years, it had never before made a systematic effort to see how people used its products. "There's a tendency to rely on available data. And sometimes it's client-driven: They know what they want—we just help them get there," Hubbard says. Sitting in doctors' waiting rooms, joining drugstore checkout queues, and browsing home centers where their products were displayed was eye-opening. "We do electronic, interactive kiosks, but we saw a lot of high-tech things that people weren't paying any attention to," Hubbard says. "Meanwhile, there were old TV sets playing videotapes about a product and people were flocking to them." His team concluded that the information they provide is far more important than how it's delivered. Fungo Media's Sullivan is already familiar with the complex process of scoring a baseball game with pencil and paper, given his longtime status as a player, including in college and a stint in minor-league ball. But doing it himself as a youth coach, and watching parent volunteers try out his app, has made all the difference in developing and marketing GameChanger, he says. "We learned through experience how long the battery would last for scorekeeping. So we spent a lot of time doing sophisticated things behind the scenes so the app is careful about sending data to the network and running down the battery," Sullivan says. "If someone comes to a game with a low battery, it still needs to last as long as a full game and maybe even a doubleheader." Coaching also helped him refine his marketing message to concentrate on the time-saving aspects of the app. "Being a coach is time-consuming. When I spend three or four hours on the field, the last thing I want to do is come home and do another hour of mindless arithmetic adding up pitch counts and stats," he says. "Coaches have full-time jobs and families. They want to spend their time with the kids on the field." Business Model Basis
Jeff Fetterman, president of pharmaceutical consulting company Paragon RX, built his business model around the undercover customer approach. His company, based in Wilmington, Del., designs programs that help patients take medications more safely. His observers go into doctors' offices and watch how they prescribe various meds. He wants his employees to be informed about the prescriptions but not overly so. "You don't want an observer who is already an expert in the area," he says. He creates an observation guide that outlines the things he particularly wants to notice, but makes sure not to narrow it down so much that he'll miss unexpected details. Particularly effective can be identifying top-performing outlets or products and comparing customer interactions there with those at average-selling locations. Noticing the difference can help improve sales across the board and establish best practices. "The most effective things we identify are often not immediately profound. They look commonsense," says Fetterman. Why is this personal immersion approach useful? It has to do with brain wiring, Simon says. "After 30, our brain has been sorted into a mind map, which becomes a powerful limiter. It sorts things based on the way we think they are, according to a story in our head," she says. "We need to experience something in person to change that story, because when someone just tells you something, your mind has no retention for that."