6 Marketing and Management Tips to learn from TV’s Undercover Boss


I had a boss in the early stages of my career, one of the last great bosses I’ve ever had, who was a huge fan of Tom Peters and his “excellence” training.

Tom Peters’ notion of “management by wandering around” (MBWA) is one of the concepts that really hit home and became a career-defining principle for me.

MBWA is defined by BusinessDictionary.com as “Unstructured approach to hands-on, direct participation by the managers in the work-related affairs of their subordinates, in contrast to rigid and distant management. In MBWA practice, managers spend a significant amount of their time making informal visits to work area and listening to the employees. The purpose of this exercise is to collect qualitative information, listen to suggestions and complaints, and keep a finger on the pulse of the organization.”

Recently, a version of MBWA has shown up on network TV in the form of CBS’ show “Undercover Boss.”

If you’re not watching, you should be! While it’s not a perfect show by any means — it’s sappy, formulaic, sometimes manipulative, and as reality TV goes, a lot of it feels staged — it does convey the right message.

Each week a different CEO goes undercover in his or her own company, taking entry-level positions. These CEOs learn about their companies, processes and employees (lots of sappiness here) as individuals, in an attempt to better manage their businesses. The bosses in the first four weeks of the show have been from Waste Management, Hooters, 7-Eleven and White Castle.

Somehow — and I find this to be highly disingenuous — all these CEOs managed to have game-changing “aha” moments. The game changers usually centered around actually learning who their normally nameless/faceless employees were on a human level: their medical problems; their multitasking in order to keep roofs over their heads; their stupidity (especially the Hooters manager and his humiliation of his female workers). Somehow these bosses were reminded that they were in business to employ people, and that people matter. Reality show emotional manipulation at its finest. Oh the humanity!

And two of the CEOs managed to cry on camera. Frankly, I just don’t get it.

How could these CEOs be so completely out of touch with their line employees? And how can these bosses, all family men, as seen in the show’s opening sequences stating the exact same thing, word for word, “that their families are their rocks,” seemingly with hearts of gold, not have a clue?

But that’s not why I’m writing about the show. Here’s why: While I highly doubt it’ll happen, every CEO and C-level executive in America should watch “Undercover Boss.” But since they won’t, here are six takeaways for any businessperson from CEO on down:

1. If you listen and get past the syrup, there are deep messages in the show about the disconnect between corporate and line workers. But that’s just a metaphor; the disconnect is from all workers and customers alike. While sanitized for the typical reality show audience, for the savvy boss, the message is there for the taking.

2. Direct marketers should run, not walk to their nearest call centers. Listen to your customer service reps. Listen to your customers and prospects. I guarantee it’ll be an eye-opening experience for you.

3. Send emails to past customers, asking why they’ve left you. This will give you firsthand knowledge of why your customer churn is so high. And along the way, you may find some customers you can reactivate as well.

4. Do the same with present customers. Ask them what you can do better; watch what happens.

5. Ask your employees to write a one-page essay on what your company’s doing right and wrong. Have them anonymously put their essays into a “suggestion” box (remember them?).

6. Don’t assume that since you’re the boss, you actually know what’s going on in your company. Chances are you know the least. Remember the maxim: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely!” What do I mean? Your employees fear you — much like in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

So check out “Undercover Boss” on CBS. Then go on a walkabout in your own company. Post a comment below or email me your experiences at jimdirect@aol.com. I’ll post them (anonymously) in a follow-up to this article.

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5 Responses

  1. I love this Jim. Maybe I should actually turn on my TV every once in a while.

    • Like I said, it’s a sappy show, but if you do turn on your TV watch “Chuck” on Mondays.

  2. Well said Jim. Though heavily “produced”, I agree that the new series is heavily laced with some “productive” nuggets. It is hard to believe that the age old MBW theory, has yet to permeate the leader/management industry.

  3. Enjoyed reading your blog Jim. Your second tip above reminded me of a good story. In ’85, we were rockin in the Outbound Telemarketing arena. We were representing a large auto club program and calling preceeding mail drops that landed a couple days prior to the calls. It was highly predictable that the avg. agent could close roughly 2.3 Sales Per Hour, (sph). One evening the avg. sales dropped to 1.7 sph and we were burning through the list…..not a good thing at all. After a couple more hours of this, the President came out of his office and walked around the floor and just couldn’t seem to figure it out….the list was the same, the script hadn’t changed, same agents, etc., etc., This was a room of approx. 100 agents. The President asked one of the agents to stand up and let him give a couple calls a whirl. Everyone was in shock, for this had never occurred before. The President made 3 calls and even with his smooth delivery and expert salesmanship skills, he failed to make a sale. Committed to “tweak” the script further, he went back to his office. It must have been incredibly inspiring to all, for immeadiately, the room jumped back up to the avg. 2.2 sph and there seemed to be a new excitement in the results. The script wasn’t changed and a new mandate that the supervisors must make x number of calls themselves, with the agents, every week from then on. Brilliant!

  4. Hi Jim! I’ve become a fan of this show amid its gaps, and wrote about “Rewards and the Undercover Boss” in my blog today –http://coachdarcy.typepad.com/practical-inspiration/ . Thanks for sharing your perspectives!

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