There are two sides to the technology-fueled revolution that shapes how we live and work. There’s the miracle of the products themselves, from super-sleek laptops to ultra-cheap digital cameras. Then there’s the misery of trying to install those products, connect them, or figure out how to use them in the first place.
It is this blend of the miraculous and the miserable that has propelled the rise of Robert Stephens and his colleagues at the Geek Squad—tech-support specialists who travel to your home or office, or help you in a Best Buy store, with a troublesome computer, mobile phone, home-theater system, or any other gadget.
There’s no denying the Geek Squad has style. The company’s field agents wear a recognizable uniform: white short-sleeve dress shirts, black clip-on ties, black pants, white socks, and black shoes (with the Geek Squad logo in the sole). They drive to client locations in identical cars: black-and-white VW Beetles with the Geek Squad logo on the door. And their job titles speak for themselves. Robert Stephens is chief inspector. His rank-and-file colleagues are “special agents.” Geeks who work inside the stores are “counter-intelligence agents.”
There’s also no denying the Geek Squad’s growth. Stephens started the company in 1994, when he was in college. Best Buy acquired Geek Squad back in 2002, when it had 60 employees and annual revenues of $3 million. Today, still under the founder’s leadership, the Geek Squad employs more than 15,000 agents, generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue, and is a crucial part of Best Buy’s strategy to provide high-touch service as well as high-tech gadgets.
Still, when I sat down with Robert Stephens at Best Buy headquarters, I was not prepared for how savvy and tough-minded he is about the right way to deliver unforgettable service. I wanted to talk about how a young entrepreneur could shake things up inside a giant company like Best Buy. He wanted to talk about the discipline it takes for young employees to deliver great results inside the homes of confused and frustrated customers.
Stephens is obsessed hiring right—especially given how fast the Geek Squad is growing. “Training is a tax you pay for a lousy hiring environment,” he says. So what traits does Stephens look for in aspiring Geeks? “Curiosity, ethics, and drive. Those are the things we can’t teach.” As for training, he says, “Our most important training program is the employee discount.” Geeks can buy the latest and greatest technology at discounts of 50-60%. The more they use it, play with it, and push it, the better they get at installing and repairing it.
Stephens may not be a fan off old-fashioned, HR-driven training, but he’s a big believer in ritual, tradition, and cultural indoctrination. There is, for example, the matter of the uniform. “It’s a litmus test for some people,” Stephens reports. “They say, ‘I’m not wearing that!’ In which case we know they’re not ready to sign on.”
The uniform is also a symbol of well, uniformity. It reinforces the message that there are consistent ways in which the 15,000 Geeks are expected to behave with customers and among themselves. “Wearing a tie used to be a sign of conformity,” says Stephens. “Now it’s like an act of rebellion—nobody dresses up anymore. The uniforms are visible and distinct. Plus, those ties let me apply a little pressure around the neck!”
To make his point, the Chief Inspector hands me a copy of The Little Orange Book, a truly remarkable guide to great service (produced by the squad’s Ministry of Propaganda) that Stephens intends as a bible of sorts for how Geeks do their work. Here’s the six-point pledge that every Geek is expected to sign. I will:
1. Never violate the trust of my clients or disrespect their property.
2. Never say, “I don’t know. Instead, say “I’ll find out.”
3. Always understand that my clients’ time is more valuable than my own.
4. Assume every problem is my fault, unless proven otherwise.
5. Consider my job done only when my client is completely overwhelmed with joy. And instead of assuming they’re happy, I’ll ask them.
6. Keep every promise I make. Including this one.
Lofty goals—which Geeks are expected to fulfill with great attention to detail. It is official policy that employees drive their Geekmobiles at 5 miles per hour below the speed limit. They are also expected to arrive for appointments five minutes before the designated time, and offer to take off their shoes before entering the client’s home. And don’t even think about pocket protectors! Geeks are forbidden to put anything—pens, eyeglasses, screwdrivers—in the pocket of their white shirt.
Geeks who commit egregious violations of these policies wear the Mother Board of Shame (MBoS)—a big circuit board with a painted S that hangs around the neck. “The MBoS is a rite of passage,” explains The Little Orange Book, “similar to the squeaky voice and foul body odor that accompany puberty.”
If it all seems a touch fanatical, well, maybe that’s what it takes to do something remarkable for customers. And that’s the ultimate goal for Robert Stephens, who also likes to say that “marketing is a tax you pay for being unremarkable.”
What are you doing to be remarkable for customers? How is your company unleashing its inner Geek?PermaLink: A Geek’s Guide to Great Service