Undercover Boss explores the dark underworld of fulfillment

This week's episode of Undercover Boss gives us a behind the scenes look at a call center and fulfillment operation when they follow Michael Rubin, CEO of GSI Commerce.  GSI Commerce provides outsourced sales and fulfillment services for companies like the NFL. If you order a jersey from NFL.com, it's actually GSI Commerce that takes your order and ships the merchandise to you. Most of us have ordered something online, via a catalog, or through a 1-800 number, but few of us have given much thought about what it takes to get the order to you.

Watch the episode first if you don't want me to spoil the plot.

Today's fulfillment operations are driven by technology, but the industry is still plagued by outdated management practices and a 'productivity before customers' philosophy. I was anxious to see what happened on this show and wasn't at all disappointed! As always, a few major lessons emerged.

Are executives workaholics or just lazy?
The executives on Undercover Boss have had a lot of trouble doing labor-intensive jobs on this show. They are often portrayed as 'workaholics', but time after time they struggle to perform manual labor at pace that matches their own company standards. In this episode, Michael got 'fired' from a packing line because he made too many errors and was boxing up orders at about half the required rate. He was also admonished by another supervisor for slow and sloppy work when he was loading boxes into a truck while a temporary worker with just three weeks on the job left him in the dust.

I don't really think most executives are lazy, but I do think they suffer from a lack of focus. A former boss (who was the company President) once told me that management was like being the plate spinner from the old variety shows, where a guy would frantically keep about 50 plates spinning on sticks without letting any of them crash. A lot of us can relate to that analogy, but the problem is keeping 50 plates spinning means that no particular plate is spinning very well. When the undercover bosses do a labor-intensive job they seem to struggle having only one job to do very well and very fast.

Hire for attitude, train for skill
Every episode of Undercover Boss has highlighted the importance of attitude. This show compared two customer service agents in the 'Escalations' department who spent their days handling upset customers. Adam wore a big smile and made pleasing his customers his number one priority. Danielle did the same job, but her attitude was focused on gaining customer compliance. At one point she instructed Michael to "sound confident and put her in her place" when advising him on how to handle an angry customer.

Designed to Fail
The processes and training programs in many fulfillment operations are unintentionally designed to fail. They yield mediocre results, create high turnover rates, and prevent employees from living up to their potential. This week's episode highlighted several examples.

Danielle, the Escalations operator, was inexcusably rude to a customer in one scene. It's easy to write this off as a lack of common sense or simply a poor attitude, but you can also see Danielle wasn't put in a position to succeed. The customer was upset because she was told she'd have to pay $149 for a $99 item due to an error made by GSI Commerce and could only get a $50 credit after she was charged and the order had shipped. The right thing to do would be to charge the customer $99, but Danielle didn't have the ability or the authority to do that. She was put in the unenviable position of enforcing a poor policy (get the customer to pay $50 extra and receive a credit later) while still keeping the customer happy. In this case, the customer refused to pay extra, so Danielle chose to enforce the policy since her job was more important than the customer.

Michael, the CEO, struggled with several of the warehouse jobs. He certainly could have worked harder, but he was given very little training and very little chance to succeed. Any new skill, no matter how simple, takes time to develop. When he was stacking boxes, he was expected to go at full speed from the beginning, but he struggle to keep up with the speed and the proper technique of stacking the boxes tightly. The focus should have first been on proper stacking while gradually building the required speed. When he got 'fired' from the packing job, he had been working in the position for only a few hours.

My company designs training programs for call centers and fulfillment operations. One of the philosophies we use is "train slow to work fast". The idea is to provide employees with complete and appropriate training so they actually work faster and with fewer errors once they are trained. It seems a bit counterintuitive at first, but I've discovered that a lot of business secrets are counterintuitive.

Did you watch the show? What did you think? As always, your comments are welcome!