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Going undercover on the shop floor

I recently spent a week with a production crew that was filming a television series – Undercover Boss – with the premise that a company boss goes “back to the floor” in their own business to see how things really work – without the employees realising who they are.

Whereas many of the other candidates going undercover in the series are chief executives or managing directors, I am the first finance director to do so.

The first question you might ask is why an FD would do this? After all, while chief executives are expected to be the face of the business, FDs are not renowned for their love of publicity.

For me the attraction was the opportunity to really get under the skin of the business after only having joined less than a year previously, moving to a global transport and logistics company from a small, high-end cosmetics business. It was a rare chance to understand the customer experience in a couple of different service departments.

As a newcomer to the business, going undercover wasn’t too much of a challenge. Under a pseudonym, sporting a beanie hat and a pair of fake glasses, I shadowed our employ­ees at a number of our locations up and down the UK to experience life in a variety of roles. I spent a day collecting boxes of documents from several clients and learning the filing system in one of our records man­agement sites in Nottingham. I accompanied teams in Birmingham and London who were managing our overseas relocations for families.

As a way of getting to know the business, the experience was hugely worthwhile. Perhaps I got too good at it ­– one employee told me I was so good at the job I had to be a plant.

The biggest benefit, though, was more than simply getting an insight into the mechanics of the services we offer. I came away with a better understanding of what makes our people tick.

Sometimes, as an FD it is too easy to be dominated by financial decisions and lose sight of the detail that makes a difference to cus­tomers. Although an international business, it is the services delivered by people based at each individual site that customers ultimately buy into.

Our service has to adapt to customer needs, so finding the right staff and providing the right support to them is crucial. Just listening to one of our drivers chatting to a customer at a law firm really brought this home to me.

It was a reminder that we entrust the company’s reputation every time our people come into contact with customers – something you can start taking for granted, but shouldn’t.

I got some strategic value out if it too. I found areas where we could improve and at the end of the filming process I reported those back to the management team. It also helped galvanise my faith in the ability of our staff and I found true stars within the company – people who would bend over backwards to please a customer, despite various challenges.

One of my recommendations to the manage­ment team was that we now give these people further opportunity to come to the fore and share their ideas for developing the company. Having a film crew behind me during the whole process was sometimes a challenge, but you don’t need to be on camera to go back to the floor and spend time understanding what works and what doesn’t. It is a good idea at any time. Through understanding the needs of employees, I strongly believe we can enhance the experience of customers – and in turn increase profitability. The beanie hat wearing was worth it.

Narin Ganesh is finance director for UK and Scandinavia for Crown Worldwide.

The programme that Narin appeared in, Undercover Boss, aired on Channel 4 this summer – watch it at www.channel4.com/programmes/undercover-boss

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