The Brand Undercover Investigation


1, Nov 2019. 23:07pm

Waking up before sunrise to get ready for a minimum wage job isn’t all that inspiring. But this wasn’t just any job: we were sending in our newest team member, undercover, to find out what was going on in our client’s café.

A critical part of all client engagements is to uncover the truth. We ask questions, like Peter Falk’s character in Columbo, “just one more thing…”. But sometimes asking questions isn’t enough. We need to see, hear, and feel what the staff, customers, and other players are experiencing. In our undercover work, we look to discover elusive, yet vital tacit knowledge—things that people know without knowing they know them. This observational tactic uncovers truth better than any other. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. But it’s always helpful. Like Undercover Boss, or John Taffer’s Bar Rescue, we parachute one of our team in to work alongside our client’s team and get a clear picture of the customer, and staff, experience.

Before we recommend an undercover investigation, we do qualitative, one-on-one employee interviews. We don’t grill them like the KGB. We establish rapport and trust. We create an atmosphere of possibility. From our initial interviews, we learned that there were resource allocation challenges felt by the kitchen staff, who were desperately requesting a larger marketing budget and more staff.

Management said they didn’t have money to market the café or to hire more people, and so the circle of challenges persisted. Sales were lacking, customer service wasn’t as polished as it could be, food was inconsistent, and profits were non-existent. We thought this would be a slam dunk until we sent in our undercover brand analyst to find the truth.

It turned out that the kitchen staff was definitely shorthanded, but the larger challenge was that they lacked experience and training. The front-of-house and kitchen staff wasn’t trained, and wasn’t being held to any standards. Customer service, and food quality, was entirely dependent on who was working on any given day.

Instead of recommending a marketing plan and/or hiring, we advised that the existing staff work together to develop a training program and a standards policy they could measure themselves by. Like a leaky bucket, you need to plug the holes before adding more water. In cases like this, brand consulting goes beyond polishing up the image, creating awareness, and generating sales: it’s about polishing up the operation to improve customer experience and to develop positive customer perceptions. Taking a deep view inside the business to help clients get it working smoothly and consistently will pay off in future marketing and brand efforts—because then the client will have something great to sell.