What I Learn by Going 'Undercover' at My Company

There's no substitute for talking directly to customers -- who don't know I'm the CEO.

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By Mark Gally

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"Hi, I'm Mark from Zaius."

But, who am I exactly? When you meet someone over the phone, can you tell if you're talking to a junior sales representative or the CEO of the company?

Related: That Time Bill Gates Answered a Tech Support Call ... and Crushed It

Let's say you're talking to a junior rep. What tone do you use? How do you ask questions? Would your tone change if you're speaking with the CEO? Do you become more deferential or more respectful?

If your interaction would be different depending on a person's title, you're not alone. For this exact reason, I often pose as an "undercover boss." You probably remember the TV show where the CEO of a company would spend a day working alongside his or her employees -- walking a mile in their shoes.

I've taken that TV show and turned it into a strategy for my business. At a variety of companies in the past 10 years, I've gone "undercover" -- leading sales calls as a sales engineer or customer service rep -- to get real, honest feedback and actionable information on how buyers and customers respond to our product.

I create an alias name and email to ensure I'm not identified and go through the entire process to experience exactly what employees experience. I've learned invaluable information through these interactions, getting deep insights into our sales process, the bottlenecks where deals get stuck and the value we're providing to our customers.

Related: What This CEO Learned by Working in His Company's Call Center

It's feedback like this that makes going undercover far more than a TV show stunt; it's a critical management tool that can shape the future of your business.

Get insights into the sales process.

As a CEO, it can be difficult to get firsthand knowledge into how the sales process is actually working and where the true bottlenecks are. Sales reps can't always tell you why a deal died, but by going undercover, I can understand the sales velocity and overall potential of the business. Over the years, it's shaped how we construct our sales terms, structured pricing, designed upsell strategies and termed contract lengths. I've also used this technique to evaluate whether a sales deck is actually effective in showing the value of our product and where the team hits road blocks. It's led to me personally tweaking our sales pitch and message more than a few times.

One of the best examples of this was refining our target market at Zaius. By leading multiple early deals, I realized that selling into the enterprise didn't give us the greatest leverage. Enterprise sales cycles were too long and not repeatable within large, siloed marketing teams. So, we shifted our strategy and targeted mid-market B2C companies where the need was great, but the sales cycles were shorter and more predictable. We found that companies with fewer than 100,000 customers were almost completely focused on new customer acquisition and weren't interested in Zaius's capabilities to drive repeat purchases and customer loyalty. We realized that our sweet spot was somewhere right in the middle -- not enterprise, and not small companies -- and that's where we focused our efforts. Suddenly, it all clicked and we found our perfect target market.

Could we have discovered that same information without me sitting in on sales calls undercover? Perhaps. But, I believe it would have taken far longer and been far less clear. Going undercover quickly and effectively showed me why our sales process was stuck. And when we found the solution, I immediately saw our momentum change and deals close quickly and efficiently. I knew right away that we had made the right choice.

Related: How Going 'Undercover' Made Me a Better Boss

Let customers guide you.

Going undercover isn't only limited to sales calls. On the customer success side, being on calls as a marketing strategist or implementation expert has helped me understand what features customers use the most and what can be difficult for them to use. With direct feedback from customers, we've decided to change features and updated the user interface to make it more intuitive. We also use customer feedback to inform our product road map and prioritize features and capabilities that our customers are clamoring for.

Why not rely on our customer success teams alone? Even if the feedback I get from our internal teams is 100 percent accurate, hearing customers' initial reactions is far better. You can't quite recreate a surprise negative reaction, or surprise positive one, in an internal discussion or written report. By participating in multiple calls, I can also see what issues keep cropping up and how our support team deals with them. And on the positive side, I get to hear what features and services make using our product easier.

A great example of this feedback loop at Zaius was when we talked to our customers about how they wanted to see metrics and reporting within the product. We found many customers just didn't understand their customer lifecycle fully. They wanted to create their own reports, but they also wanted a standard set of KPIs that came with the product to save time. We launched the metrics overview feature and made it the homescreen of the product. That way, marketers could see the impact their campaigns were having in terms of revenue and lifecycle metrics, not just the standard clicks and views. It was a huge hit, and the feedback cycle was clearly valuable for the business.

Related: How 'Undercover Boss' Taught Me to Hire the Right People and Continue to Nurture Them

Better understand your business.

Overall, going undercover provides insight into aspects of your business that a CEO just can't effectively get any other way. It lets you understand not only what the customer really, honestly wants, but also how efficient and effective your sales process is in helping them understand your product's value.

Unfortunately, many CEOs aren't in touch with what their customers and prospects say day to day. This is a massive lost opportunity for your business. People act very differently with CEOs versus sales or support reps, and you'd be amazed what someone will tell you on a phone call. The depth of what I've learned as an undercover employee has led to a number of massive strategy shifts and helped me run the company far more effectively.

Don't believe me? Try it yourself. The next time you pick up the phone for a customer call, don't tell them you're the CEO. Instead, take a cue from TV and go undercover.
Mark Gally

CEO of Zaius

Mark Gally is the CEO of Zaius. As a senior executive with more than 20 years’ experience leading software companies, Gally has scaled and managed companies with exponential annual growth. He has scaled organizations from under $2 million in annual sales to more than $50 million.

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