Interview: Robert Stephens – Founder of The Geek Squad

I interviewed Robert Stephens, who is the Founder and Chief Inspector of The Geek Squad and a VP at Best Buy a few weeks ago.

It took two phone calls and a good hour or two, but I got the answers to all of my questions. Good answers, too. The interview totals in at about 5,300 words. I really need to keep my interviews short and sweet, but there is so much to ask! So, I’m dividing the interview into four parts over two weeks. Most of it will be posted this week.

I’m doing another interview today was an equally interesting company, but I won’t reveal who it is for a week or two. My only hint is that I have talked about the company before, but have never had a first hand experience with them.

Geek Squad is owned by Best Buy and both organizations are gigantic. Geek Squad has about 11,000 employees (called Agents) now. When the company was acquired, it had 55 agents. Talk about rapid growth.

The first part of the interviews talks about Robert’s philosophy when it comes to customer service and business as well as his background and education. Click the “read more” link to read the interview.

Question: What is your philosophy when it comes to customer service?
Answer: That you cannot build or engineer a customer experience. You can only engineer an employee experience, and it is the employee experience that produces the customer experience. So my emphasis in service, which the biggest expense in pretty much any service business I can think of is human capital/labor. In service, the people are the brand. They are the factories that manufacturer it. I focus really on attracting and maintaining talent as a means of accomplishing that goal. My job as a leader is to influence and inspire. I can’t be at every single house call, so I need to develop ways of convincing these people about what their mission and purpose are and if I want to lower my marketing costs, I want to do that with style so I am differentiated from anyone else.

Question: Was the Geek Squad founded with customer service in mind? Did you intend customer service to be a key differentiates?
Answer: I didn’t think of it so formally. I started The Geek Squad because I was starving as a college student and I had always made extra money as a kid fixing stuff (lawnmowers, TVs, dryers, VCRs, etc.). When I was in college (in the early 90’s), more and more computers were what I was being asked to help out with. I realized that everybody’s is a service business, whether they realize it or not. Even if you are in manufacturing, how you answer the phone – that’s service. How you package your product, how well the manuals are written – to me, that is all service. After making some house calls on my mountain bike with a cellphone near the campus of the University of Minnesota in the early 90’s, I realized that people were saying “Oh yeah the other person fixed my computer, but they didn’t’ show up on time” or they talked down to me, or they smelled bad. I realized that there were all these other details. You can go to a restaurant and have a great meal and the server can be super polite, but at the end of the night, if 25 minutes goes by and they haven’t stopped by your table to give you the check, that can kind of sour everything. It is attention to detail and focus that is essential.

Question: In my research, I saw that you attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but you said you attended the University of Minnesota?
Answer: I grew up in Chicago and attended the Art Institute of Chicago for two years and left there because I didn’t want to be a starving artist. I found myself playing more in the computer lab than anything else. It is kind of a paradox between art for art’s sake and what the purpose of business in life. Art clearly has a higher purpose to it – human endeavor, excellence, and all of that stuff. Business isn’t looked upon as something lofty, yet that is what I was good at.

I found myself going through the Art Institute every day with incredibly creative people and it was kind of depressing. In high school, I was the most creative person you knew, and then all of the sudden I am in this environment, and everyone is creative, like hyper creative. This is even before the web, Kinko’s had just come out and everyone was publishing their own zines and doing photocopying. There was a lot of writing and creativity going on. When everyone is creative, creativity loses its special meaning. If everything is art, there are no more movements anymore.

The point is I ended up being really good at business, but I felt guilty wanting to do business because it is not as noble as producing art. I realized that I would rather not compromise and do crappy, mediocre art. I’ll go into business, which is what I am good at, make my money, and then when I have time, I will dedicate my free time to the endeavors. That is what Ben Franklin did – he retired at the age of like 31 or something like that.

I went to the University of Minnesota to study computers and got a job at the Human Factors Research Lab through my roommate and they got me on Macs and PCs and I saw the Internet for the first time (back in the early 90s, those [colleges] were the only places you got the Internet). I started doing my business and I realized that if you do a business creatively, that is one way of resolving that paradox. If you can glamorize computer support, you can glamorize anything. Geek Squad really is my answer to that paradox of can business be artful.

If you are profitable and the employees are happy and the customers are happy, you can pretty much do anything you want. That is how I kind of figured it out. I think that is where most people give up in business, especially service. Service is hard. You can be really great at what you do, but the minute you rely on somebody else to execute what you think is great, that is when things start to fall apart. Even if you are a strong personality, you have got to be systematized. You have got to be disciplined and a rigor to reproduce that experience consistently, over and over. That is when I started studying and melding hybrids.

That for me is one of the other key answers: every problem you will ever face in business has already been solved. The key is just to look for them in other places. Picasso said good artists copy and great artists steal. I think if he were a business consultant, what he would have meant is if you are going to try and innovate or do something new and innovative, don’t look to your competitors or anyone in your industry. I stole flat rate pricing from the oil change industry. I knew that was going to be happening soon (like Internet access – no one wanted to pay per minute or per kilobyte charges – we just want a flat rate). We are in a flat rate world with things like 99 cents a song. That brought with it simpler and simper processes. It allowed me to focus on doing things a little more creatively. That is kind of how that all evolved.

Question: Do you consider yourself a “right-brained” artist or a “left-brained” computer geek? A mixture of both?
Answer: I am both right brain and left brain. I can be highly strategic and highly tactical. Highly creative. I switch modes.

Question: How has your background helped in the development of the Geek Squad’s customer service philosophy?
Answer: I have no formal business training. Geek Squad is technically only the third job I have ever held. One was a rock climbing instructor when I was a teenager and the other was working at a mattress company. I guess you could count my years at the University of Minnesota, but I was really moonlighting doing computer support. My best experience is playing with Legos. You solve problems. In business, you’ve got problems to solve. If you like solving problems and you are creative, and you have no money, it forces you to be more creative (the best thing that ever happened to me was that I had no money) and solve things. If you are systematized, you can sort of leverage that and that background helped over time. It allowed me to remain unique and not having to sacrifice my soul because I was beholden to investors. I never borrowed a dime for the company.

6 Responses to “Interview: Robert Stephens – Founder of The Geek Squad”

  1. University Update said:

    Feb 12, 07 at 10:09 am

    Interview: Robert Stephens – Founder of The Geek Squad…

  2. Meikah Delid said:

    Feb 13, 07 at 4:10 am

    Interesting read, Doug! Looking forward to the rest of the interview. Robert Stephens is one good interviewee, and being interested in art and business, too, I want to see how he combines the two successfully. 🙂

  3. Custserv » Customer Service News Round-up - The New Competitive Edge said:

    Feb 14, 07 at 4:49 am

    […] Let me start with Service Untitled, which often comes up with good interviews. Yes, over there is a running a series of an interview with Robert Stephens, the Founder of the Geek Squad and a VP at Best Buy. In the first part, I think it’s a joy to work for Mr. Stephens. He believes in investing in human capital to ensure good customer experience all the time. The second part of the interview somehow validates my observation. The companies are a people company. I’ll have to say, this is a Management that has a clear vision for the company. You don’t find that kind anywhere. Read more… […]

  4. eStara said:

    Feb 15, 07 at 2:53 pm

    Customer Service…Geek Squad-style…

    Service Untitled will be running a four-part interview over the next two weeks with Geek Squad founder and Best Buy VP, Robert Stephens.  In …

  5. Service Untitled » Robert Stephens interview round-up - customer service and customer service experience blog said:

    Feb 25, 07 at 11:50 am

    […] Part One Link – Robert’s customer service and business philosophy, background and education. […]

  6. Customers Rock! said:

    Mar 13, 07 at 11:30 am

    Friday News from the ‘Sphere…

    Today, my tidbits point to two Marketing carnivals, a “geeky” interview, and the latest on the Z-list.  Grab your favorite snack (I just finished one of mine: Bugles!), sit back, and have a read.
    Two Marketing Carnivals
    I am very late in p…