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Lessons from Undercover Boss

I just happened to see the start of last Thursday’s Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary Undercover Boss, and it held my attention enough that I watched the rest of the programme

I am not going to provide a précis of the episode (but see here) other than to say that the chief executive of Best Western Hotels, David Clarke, went undercover as a “trainee” performing some basic entry-level jobs in three of his hotels. Newspaper reviewers have been predictably cutting – “[Clarke] discovers the usual corner-cutting and staff discontent and goes about remedying the situation with all the alacrity of a man being filmed while trying to show his business in a positive light. The cameras kind of ruin this one” from The Guardian is typical – but I thought he came across relatively humanely. Despite the flaws of the format, it was revealing enough, and I drew three lessons from it.

The first is for senior management. Clarke was surprised by how messages from the centre fail to get through to staff on the ground. Best Western had invested heavily in an advertising campaign, and had been pushing the message out hard (or so they thought) to their member hotels. Despite this, hotel staff just didn’t seem to be aware of it, or indeed of anything much about Best Western at all. This was true even of top performers who were otherwise doing an excellent job.

This may have been news to Clarke, but not to those of us who are at the sharp end delivering a service to customers. Communications from the centre, however well intentioned, often seem irrelevant to our daily situation. Sometimes it is if they are in a foreign language – branding and marketing messages are often written by management for clients’ management. I was surprised how genuinely surprised Clarke appeared.

The second lesson is a reminder to anyone concerned with monitoring quality, about the importance of random QC checks. The programme exposed a process failure; one of the hotels had failed a quality inspection, and the handyman was preparing for the re-inspection by swapping defective equipment in failed rooms for identical items from rooms that had passed, because the inspector would check only that defects had been fixed. It highlights that people will always game the system, and will do what they can to score against what’s being measured, not what matters. This is particularly true of poor performers.

Finally, a reality check for me. It was a reminder that there are many people on little above the minimum wage who nevertheless put in unpaid effort beyond the call of duty to satisfy the customer, out of professional pride, even though they get little/no direct personal benefit from it (except maybe not losing their jobs). After working for so long in IT, where staff are relatively well-paid but cynical, it was a reminder at a time when pay rises are rather thin on the ground that we could all be much worse off.

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