Be an Undercover Provider

We were working with a large quick-service restaurant company who was doubting the power and profitability of their offering a great customer experience.  They were convinced that product, price, PR (as in advertising), and the proper restaurant location would always win the day.  “As long as the customer experience is okay, even sometimes mediocre, why invest in making it great?”  They told us.  We proposed they go undercover.  These were our instructions.

Select a location where you have a restaurant franchise near a Chick-fil-A restaurant.  Pick a small town where your franchise and the Chick-fil-A must draw from the exact same labor pool.  Dress like ordinary customers, not like C-suite executives.  Visit both and compare them.  Then, look at their financial metrics compared to yours.  It was a customer version of the TV show Undercover Boss.

They returned to mahogany row in their high-rise, big city office building.  Their assessment: “We have a problem.”

Good companies assess their customers’ needs and expectations in a host of ways.  Some do pricy market research with the latest tools and technologies.  Some conduct surveys and focus groups.  Some hire mystery shoppers—actors trained to assess compliance with pre-established standards.  But, none of these are as compelling as “being the customer.”

Chip’s wife’s hairdresser, Johnny Adair, has been known to get a permanent.  “Why?” Johnny explained it this way: “I realized that when a woman gets a permanent it can be an embarrassing, uncomfortable, and awkward experience.  If I put myself in her world, I could more clearly see it and make changes that would make it more comfortable for her.”  That is “being the customer.”

Call your own department or unit, disguise your voice, and ask for something out of the ordinary.  It is a way of going undercover to deeply know your customer’s world.  “I understand” is a state we can easily claim as a provider.  It generally means we have done our homework, read the report, and listened to the right stories.  It is the phrase we use when an upset customer has catalogued a concern or issue.  But, do we really, really understand?

When a friend’s mother passes away alone from Covid 19 and we seek to comfort that friend, do we really understand?  When a grandparent tries to describe the reality of being in intense military combat, do we truly understand?  When a customer attempts to teach us about life inside our inane processes, do we honestly understand?  We say we do.  But, what would it take to be so immersed in the world of your customers that our empathy reflected a mirrored reality without any of our assumptions, guesses or suppositions?  Find ways to go undercover and learn the truth about your customer’s world.

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.