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Business is the best art

I chaired a track session at European Customer Management World recently where part of my job was to interview Robert Stephens, founder of The Geek Squad. Here are a dozen learning points I jotted down from Robert on how to take a commoditized sector – IT service and repair – and create a cool, profitable, compelling, distinctive employee and customer experience.

Robert’s secret is that he deep themes his business, from the types of car his Geeks drive, to the way they dress, right down to the soles of their shoes. He calls his company ‘a living comic book’.

Clearly, stand-out leadership that creates stand-out organizations has evolved into something different from what it was. And by breaking the rules and treating everything as marketing (“Marketing is a tax you pay for being unremarkable”, he says), Robert seems to have re-invented marketing as well as leadership.

12 Learning Points from The Geek Squad on How to Create a Distinctive Customer Experience

1. Marketing when you have no money is the best kind of marketing. In 1994 when Robert started his IT support business, he had no money, just a mountain bike and a mobile phone to take him to his house calls. “That’s about as integrated as you can get. Everything you do in that situation is marketing.”

2. Marketing is a tax you pay for being unremarkable. Be remarkable – stand out – and you get free marketing. Because everything you do is marketing.

3. “Customer experience is the result of the employee experience. Every company is in the service business, no matter what you do.”

4. Create new rules: “I couldn’t afford to advertise. I’d never run a business before, so I had no rules to go by. I could see the company as a movie in my head. The Geeks were an audience I have to inspire, as are the customers. If you think of your companies as movie plots it is liberating.”

5. Dress the part. Our first uniform was a black SWAT jumpsuit. Our story is that we only turn up in an emergency, so it fit with the storyline. But, it scared the customers to death, so we softened it. Our uniform is now stolen from NASA – all those old black and white pics of NASA scientists huddled around the workstations in Houston, with short-sleeved white shirts, black ties…There’s something humble about that whole thing and we are a service culture. So, in the name of humility that’s how our modern day philosopher-kings, the Geeks, now dress.

6. Starve your teams on projects. They’ll be most creative that way.

7. Authenticity is one thing that can’t be copied.

8. Companies are now, in effect, focussed social networks for hire.

9. Replicating the DNA: We all need to be aware of the Founder’s Dilemma. Steve Jobs is reckoned to be 20% of Apple’s worth. What if he’s hit by a bus? My job is to influence and inspire the most efficient form of leadership. I’m a Geek too. When Iron Man comes out we all line up and go see the movie together. I’m a two-time college dropout. There isn’t that kind of separation between leader and led you might get in other organizations. My job is to lead by example and inspire. What the leader can do is influence and recognise people’s contribution. I’m the first director, if you will. But there are sequels, prequels, and other Geeks will direct those. We have one common purpose. There’s a Death Star called mediocrity. Our role is to blow it up with speed and quality.

9. Recruitment is the best form of advertising. We are starting to hold late night Kung Fu film festivals as a recruitment initiative, as the only people who go to schlock late night Kung Fu festivals are Geeks or people who know Geeks.

10. The three skills you can’t train for, that are essential for the Geek Squad, are: curiosity, ethics and drive. Curiosity in particular is that mix of enthusiasm and humility that is vital.

11. Recognize the importance of play: The key to innovation is play.

12. Most of the world is populated by boring businesses. I dropped out of art school because it was easier for me to be creative in a business setting. When companies are so boring, your opportunity to stand out by being interesting is enormous. Warhol said “Business is the best art.”


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