A Challenge to the Deskbound

It sounds so simple: To get real insight into what’s happening in the marketplace, get out of the office once in a while and interact with your customers on the ground—or, better yet, be a customer on the ground. But how many managers ever actually make the time to do that?

Inspiration to make such an effort now comes from the man hired to be the new senior vice president of retail at Apple, John Browett. Browett was formerly CEO at Dixons, one of the largest consumer electronics retailers in Europe, and he was apparently known for regularly interacting with his customers inside the store.

A post on MacRumors titled “Apple’s New SVP of Retail Went Undercover as Regular Salesperson” includes an anecdote from a customer named Paul Harmer, who’d shopped at Dixons a year ago. “We were assisted by a really charming and knowledgeable assistant, who I must admit appeared slightly better-dressed and older than most in the store,” Harmer recalled. “Turns out it was John Browett making one of his regular store visits.”

Peter Drucker’s view on Browett’s management practice couldn’t be simpler: Bravo. “No matter how good the reports, no matter how good the economic or financial theory underlying them, nothing beats personal, direct observation, and in a form in which it is truly outside observation,” Drucker wrote.

In Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Drucker cited the example of Irish supermarket chain Super-Quinn, started by Fergal Quinn. “His secret is not better merchandise or lower prices,” Drucker noted. “His secret is that he and all of his company’s executives have to spend two days a week outside their offices. One day is spent actually doing a job in a supermarket, for example, by serving at a checkout counter or as manager for perishable foods.”

Drucker added that it’s “a very old observation that few things improve the performance of a physician as much as being a hospital patient for two weeks.” In short, “Only by being a customer oneself, a salesman oneself, a patient oneself, can one get true information about the outside.”

What about you? Do you get out of the office and interact with your customers enough? If not, what would it take to get you to do so?