'Undercover Boss': Rookie Mike White of DIRECTV
Who among us hasn't, at one time or another, stood in front of the TV, remote in one hand, telephone clenched against your ear, desperately pleading with the customer service rep to just get rid of the snow and make the darn reception work before you miss your favorite show? On 'Undercover Boss' this week, DIRECTV CEO Mike White felt your pain for the first time as he took calls from frustrated customers.
Unlike other Undercover Bosses, however, he didn't work his way up the DIRECTV corporate ladder. Only recently, he started at the top.
He hasn't even been with the $23 billion company a full year. Until January 2010, White was the CEO of PepsiCo International, where he'd been working for 20 years, so his 'Undercover Boss' experience was more important to him than to most. His short time with the company was also an advantage in that most of the employees didn't know what he looked like yet. "It was a great opportunity to learn more about the business," he told AOL Jobs. "I learn best by doing, so it was really important to me to walk a mile in the employees' shoes."
And in some instances, it was a long, hard mile in somewhat uncomfortable shoes. "I was struck by the complexity and sophistication of our technology, and the skill it requires," he says. "I was impressed by how hard our front line works." He noted that the customer has two moments of truth with DIRECTV: When the installer comes to your home, and when you call the customer assistance line for help. "Watching the employees handle these situations made me so proud of the passion they have for the customer," White said. "They wouldn't leave the home or hang up until the job was done."
Lightning almost strikes
Learning by doing got White into some rather sticky situations, like trying to install a dish on a customer's roof with a thunderstorm rapidly approaching. He was impressed by the competence of Tequilla, the female service technician who showed him how to do it, and then how she tenaciously smoothed out the digital connections inside the home, where the irregular weather was making things difficult. All this while she was trying to finish up and go to her family reunion. Because White's ineptitude slowed her down, however, she missed the reunion.
But White made it up to her. Once he introduced himself as the head of the company, he paid for Tequilla to have another family reunion, and flew her mother in for it. Not only that, but because of her dedication, professionalism and expertise, he also appointed her to be the first tech ever on DIRECTV's Women in Leadership Exchange.
His penchant for hands-on learning also landed him on top of a huge pile of cardboard boxes at a warehouse in Las Vegas. It isn't often you see a CEO frantically jumping up and down on a mountain of cartons to compress them. But Ryan, the supervisor who assigned him the task, had a bad back that had required surgery, and he worried about re-injuring it. White ended up finding him a better position that wouldn't require so many back-taxing activities. In addition, White learned that Ryan was a single father of twin boys, and White paid for a grand party for their third birthday.
One of White's biggest surprises came when he learned from Phil, the service technician who trained him and then took him out on calls, that the techs had to buy their own GPS devices in order to find their customers' homes. They also had to call other technicians to find out whether they were carrying needed equipment when it was not available from the warehouse, and this took up valuable time.
Later White insisted that his board members straighten out the stocking issues and provide GPS devices to all technicians who make house calls. Phil was grateful for that, and even more grateful for the $5,000 White contributed to Phil's youth ministry. It seems that like White's son, Phil had had a drug problem, but kicked it, and was now trying to give back to the community that helped him. White couldn't resist supporting Phil in that.
No smooth operator
White performed no better in the call center in Denver, Colo.,, where he was trained by a gracious and informative customer service rep named Chloe. White took far longer that he should have trying to help the customers adjust their satellite reception, mistook the gender of a caller by addressing a woman as "sir," and bungled details so badly a customer hung up on him. Still, the ever-patient Chloe walked him through it all.
On a break, she told him that she has been raised in a foster home, and that she was currently a student but eventually wanted to either start her own business or go to law school. After White was revealed as her boss, he told Chloe he was starting a $10,000 scholarship for employees, and that she would be the first recipient. White also volunteered to be her mentor, offering to meet with her several times each year. His own father had died when he was young, he explained, and he knew what it was like to live without a father. He wanted to be there for her.
"If you're going to lead people they have to trust you," White says. "Trust has been broken a lot in major corporations these days. I think these types of experiences help rebuild that trust."
Help wanted at DIRECTV
DIRECTV seems to be helping to rebuild the economy as well. It's one of the few companies that hasn't been hard hit by the recession. White believes it's because people are staying home more and going out less. Home entertainment is thriving. "If you have a good high-definition TV, you have a home theater," he says. DIRECTV has actually been adding jobs to accommodate the increased demand.
White is especially pleased with a program they've begun in West Virginia that allows customer service reps to work from home. If anyone out there is looking for a job with DIRECTV, he advises them to sharpen their technical skills and to upgrade their knowledge of science and math. "This is a highly specialized economy," he says.
But there will always be a need for basic kindness, patience, diligence and commitment. White's 'Undercover Boss' experience reminded him of that.
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