Office Depot’s president Kevin Peters described his recent experience “mystery shopping” his own company. Here we provide excerpts from his article originally published in the “Harvard Business Review”.

Peters came on board in 2010 and one of his first tasks was to figure out why the company’s sales were declining when compared to its competitors. However, the customer service scores, as presenting by a mystery shopping company hired by Office Depot showed that customer service was exceptional. These two facts didn’t make any sense, so President Peters set out on a fact-finding mission of his own.

He donned a pair of jeans and a baseball cap and went shopping at about 70 of his stores in 15 different states. He followed the same routine at each store, watching customers come and go from the parking lot. Then he’d go in and watch for another 20 to 30 minutes and engage the customers in conversations. Sometimes he followed them out the door, especially those who hadn’t bought anything, and asked them why.

Along the way, he once saw an employee argue with a customer.  At another store, he determined the store manager was the one leading just outside the door, smoking a cigarette. After a conversation with the manager, President Peter kept up an email correspondence with the guy, who had vowed to do better.

What he determined after all those visits was that the company was measuring the wrong things. The company had been asking about clean floors and full shelves of inventory. It is what the employees were trained to pay attention to, not the building of good relationships with its customers. 

Furthermore, his visits taught him that their stores were too big, making them difficult for customers to navigate. He had to retrain employees to respond to customer needs.  Finally, they needed to expand what they offered–from products to copying services, printing and shipping, for example.  He learned that the customers of Office Depot wanted to get in and out of their stores as quickly as possible.

All that the president had learned translated into a few pilot projects he instigated, all with an eye toward making their associates more accessible and their stores easier for customers to use. They made sure the employees were well-versed in the products and knew how to provide, quickly, what the customer wanted.

As we work to make these changes, I still try to visit our stores as frequently as possible.  It’s really the only way you can know how your business is doing.  You have to see how customers are being treated, and you can’t rely on reports or scores or hearsay – you have to experience it yourself.  If you think your company is doing well with customer service, ask yourself, Am I really sure?  Do I know what the customer experiences?