WTF: Giving everyone the "Undercover Boss" experience

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 21, 2013

From The News Desk

Occasional PandoDaily contributor and Altimeter analyst Brian Solis has written several best-selling business books, mostly about how businesses should adapt to a social media age. So, when I heard he had another one coming out, I wondered, what more could he have to say?

He caught my attention with the edgy title: "What's the Future of Business?" or as it says on the cover illustration, simply "WTF."

WTF is exactly our response to most companiesham-fisted attempts to adjust to the social media age, so we caught up with Solis to find out how this book is different than advice that's come before.

PandoDaily: Why write this book? What more could be possibly said about this topic?

Brian Solis: The last books that I've written have been very academic in nature. They've researched what is happening and how consumers are changing and how technology is changing and how that is changing business. But I found that companies were looking at technology as the solution and getting caught up in this cycle of reacting. "Oh, there's Twitter! We should be there!" They weren't getting in front of things.

I realized part of the problem was the management culture of a lot of companies. A sense of changing the culture was not coming format he top down. It was coming from bottom level people in marketing or PR or customer service or advertising who were struggling to keep their careers going.

This isn't about technology. It's about customers becoming more informed and more connected and how that makes them feel more empowered and have higher expectations. What people feel about you, they say about you, and it's happening in all kinds of places. It isn't going away.

Instead of fighting it, what if you look at the experiences they are having with your brand and then look at what you said your vision as a company is and then figure out the gap. If people are sharing experiences that aren't the ones you want them to have, you've got a problem, and as the leader of the company, you have to fix it.

It's like that show "Undercover Boss." CEOs lose touch with customers and with everyone as employees. This problem is why everyone is crying at the end of every episode and the boss is saying "Oh, I just forgot what it was like!"

So this book is really designed for large companies?

It's primarily designed for more mature companies in a lull, because that's who we work with a lot. But a lot of small businesses are struggling too, and they don't have time to figure out technology. A lot of "mom and pop" small businesses are from another generation, where they still think the marketing solution is advertising in the Yellow Pages.

Or they know it's not but when they tried to adopt something new, they got Groupon.

Yeah, you get burned, and then you don't want to try anything. They have good excuses like "We don't have time to figure out what's going on. We have a business to run."

So at a high level this book is about the consumer is changing, almost like a digital anthropologist. If people don't keep up, they won't even be part of this society anymore. There's a reason "the kids" are so different from you, and they aren't changing.

Do those business owners even have the time to read a book?

Yeah, the irony is I knew the only way to tell this story wasn't really in a book, because that's not the way people are consuming information anymore. So we designed the book like an analog app with big color pages and infographics. It's a four-color, coffee table book that sucks you in. The book needed to be its own experience too.

Are customers really any different in the social/mobile area, or do they simply have more avenues to express themselves?

There are two categories of consumers who've grown up on technology in this country. One is our generation, people who remember a time without technology and know how to change a TV channel with a knob. For the most part, businesses are designed around these people. They use SEO and SEM to get people in.

Then you have this incredibly dynamic customer who doesn't start on Google. They live their lives on the lazy Web, where they ask for suggestions to things via Twitter or Facebook. Once you start living that connected lifestyle it's just better. It slowly changes the way you go about making decisions. The touch points change. There are more of them, and they are harder to control. People make decisions based on people's experiences and reviews and conversations. You can't SEO your way out of that.

Think about AT&T. I'm pretty sure what people say about them most of the time isn't the relationship the CEO of the company wants to have with customers. Once the connected customer gets stronger, the traditional customer isn't going to get any bigger. The connected customers are going to take over one day.

But if everyone is connected and Tweeting and sharing, couldn't you argue that there's so much noise that each Tweet in and of itself starts to matter less?

No, bad feedback can still be pretty devastating. It's not just a story of technology any more. It's a story of empathy. Companies need to focus on the experience they want consumers to have.

At the end of the day, isn't this just about whether or not CEOs give a shit? Can you force them to? Didn't good companies always give a shit about the experience?

The difference is now you can trace this to the bottom line. You can see how shared experiences are impacting your forecast and revenues. You can see if these touch points are encouraging customers to leave.

I just flew to Australia and watched this movie on the plane, "Breaking Dawn, Part 2"... Have you seen it?

No, I'm apparently less of a 13-year-old girl than you are.

That's true. Well I'll spoil the end since you probably won't ever watch it. At the end of the movie, one of the vampires has the gift to be able to show you what's about to happen. The whole movie is set up for this big fight between the old vampires and the hipster vampires. It shows that the old vampires lose and the hipster vampire says, "After everything you've just seen you are still going to fight?" They do and all the old vampires die. Then it pulls back and you realize that entire battle was still all part of this vision. And the old vampire changes his mind and says "We're not fighting today."

That's what social media can show you about how customers feel about your business.