Interview: Robert Stephens – Part 2

This is the second part of the interview with Robert Stephens, the Founder of the Geek Squad and a VP at Best Buy. In this part, he talks about the company’s recruiting, hiring and training processes, about their uniforms, and about the mix between technical aptitude, personality, and customer service skills.

Click “more” to read the second part of the interview.

Question: What does the Geek Squad do to try and find the best potential employees?
Answer: Well, we try to do great work so that our reputation becomes something that is sought after as a place to work. We try and be different in everything we do. We know that people have choices about where they work and therefore we want to be a choice. One thing we do that stands out as well is everything we do is advertising. Our Geek Mobiles are visible and distinct.

The uniforms are visible and distinct. The uniforms are like a litmus test. Wearing a tie used to be a sign of conformity, but now it is really an act of rebellion to dress up anymore. Ours was done a bit to a comical degree, but it is a subtle reminder that if you take yourself too seriously, then you probably won’t work out well here. This is a stressful job. You can’t be a know it all. You aren’t going to know everything – you just need to know how to find the answer. We don’t want you talking down to people. You can’t have an ego when you are wearing our uniform. The uniforms turn out to be a nice litmus test. Just like word of mouth with customers, people hear about how it is to work here. We try and set an environment that is attracting to talent.

Question: Do you make your corporate employees wear the uniforms?
Answer: I don’t make them, but most of them do. When we were acquired by Best Buy and we came here, there were like 5,000 people here at the campus. I told them [Geek Squad employees], if you want to stand out, wear the uniform and then everyone will know who you are. A lot of them do that because they become instantly recognized and people approach them, so it helps their social networking here and that is how you get a lot of things done in big organizations (networking and things like that). In the call centers, and at the Geek Squad City (our laptop repair facility in Louisville, Kentucky), there are no windows in the building, but everyone is in uniform even though nobody will ever see them. That is the kind of stuff we do that is a bit odd, but is done intentionally to make a point. If you interact with the customer directly or touch the customer’s property directly, we want you in uniform. Simple as that.

Question: After they are hired, what type of training do Geek Squad Agents go through?
Answer: We give them cultural indoctrination. Not unlike Mao Tse Tung’s communist party. We issue a “little orange book”, similar to Mao’s little red book. We tell them what we stand for. In the interviews, we first talk the candidates out of a job. We don’t try to talk them into a job, we try to talk them out of it. We start by saying why the job might not be for them. We would rather you feel that you got sold something realistic. The job is tough sometimes. You might have tickets for the basketball game Friday night, but I need to know that if the server is not rebooting at the customer’s place, you are going to stick around until it is right.

Once they are in, though, we basically first tell them the stories. We tell them the heritage. This company started with a kid on a mountain bike and it was just about showing up on time and doing it right the first time, doing it fast, and being nice. That’s it.

Their goal is to protect or improve our reputation. That’s it. They are free to break any policy they need if they feel that a policy is going to interfere with protecting or improving our reputation. We try to get down to a single instruction to everybody that everybody can follow that’s simple. We believe that reputation is the word because it implies something that you have to earn (you cannot fake it) and customers are in control over it.

We usually have new employees do ride-alongs. They get to see all the different experiences and then we have kind of a buddy system. They come in and get trained by the person they are working with. The next person can’t really get promoted until they have been helping to build the bench.

Question: Technical support people and computer geeks often have a stereotype of being anti-social and a bit awkward? Obviously, these aren’t desirable skills for customer service. Is there stereotype even true? If so, what does the Geek Squad do to deal with this?
Answer: It can be. That is where the uniform comes in. Our interview process tends to weed people out. One of the benefits of joining forces with Best Buy is we can now indoctrinate you by starting to work the aisles in the stores. People come in, and employees learn to look them in the eye and greet them and listen to them, find out what they want. Because you are a geek, you know everything about every product out there, which is an improvement over previous retail experiences. Now you have people that know what they are talking about. Then, you listen and build solutions. That is something that most technical people (even with good personalities) don’t get a lot of experience with. Then, by the time that they do go into the home and do the house calls, they have that experience of listening, recommending, and then doing.

We do our best to weed them [people who fit the stereotype a bit too accurately] out. Some of the people are strange. We don’t mind strange, we just don’t want creepy or rude. We don’t need people that have been picked on their whole life and have a need for a reverse superiority complex.

We hire for two things. We hire for aptitude and enthusiasm. Aptitude is a general quality that says you can basically solve any problem that you are faced with based on prior experience. You haven’t seen this exact one before, but you can deduce it. If you’ve done one import into a spreadsheet, you can do any. Enthusiasm is something that we can’t give you, either. You’ve either got it or you don’t. If you have enthusiasm for computers, you obsessively read the manuals.

The social skills are obviously important. We generally screen that, because there is not much you can do to train that. We do give employees a little hygiene kit (contains a small bottle of mouthwash, a stick of deodorant, and an old film I found from the 1930’s made for school children on personal hygiene) when they are hired as a subtle, friendly reminder.

I hate corporate policies and that kind of stuff. They are there for reference, but they aren’t the first thing we toss in their face. There are subtle ways to do it. You can basically imply behavior without having to be overt. We don’t want Geek Squad to feel like a company because we don’t want you treating customers like numbers. We really want you to look at it like Geek Squad is not a company – it’s a movie. You [as the employee] are the co-star. The customer is the headliner. They are on a mission and in trouble, and they are the hero in this adventure. Your job is to rescue them by supporting them, by removing the virus or whatever. The clock is ticking and you’ve got to get to your next house call. This movie actually has three or four climaxes a day.

Telling it that way, they are already getting paid and having fun, and if they are having fun, we are making money. We can do this and get away with it because we do quality work. We kind of make it a bit theatrical. Our business is great because it makes for immediate gratification. You wake up everyday and show up at people’s homes you have never seen before, problems that you don’t know that you are going to face. They might be a movie star or a policeman or who knows. You solve their problem and they think you are walking on water. You walk out of their house so happy and if you do a good job, you get to experience that a couple of times a day.

5 Responses to “Interview: Robert Stephens – Part 2”

  1. Meikah Delid said:

    Feb 14, 07 at 3:42 am

    Doug, this is one interesting interview! If there’s someone I want to meet now, it would be Robert Stephens. He is the kind of management who has a clear vision for his business.

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

    Feb 14, 07 at 4:54 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… […]

  3. C. B. Whittemore said:

    Feb 24, 07 at 10:15 pm

    Fascinating interview! Great information and insight. Thanks for sharing.

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

    Feb 25, 07 at 11:50 am

    […] Part Two Link – The Geek Squad’s recruiting, hiring and training processes, about their uniforms, about the mix between technical aptitude, personality, and customer service skills. […]

  5. Nancy said:

    Jun 25, 08 at 1:11 pm

    Well, I found the interview interesting and ironic at the same time. Seeing that I just got ripped off on a plasma TV at my local Best Buy store. Really it wasn’t the Geek Squad people who treated me horribley, it was the store manager and corporate office who gave me NO solution to my problem…so the next time anyone buys a TV or any electronics please have the Best Buy guys, preferably a manager, open the box and make sure they aren’t selling you a broken product. Then you can take it home…I’m not saying don’t buy at Best Buy…but be aware of their ridiculous store policy.