In a startup, it’s common for all employees, including leadership, to perform any and all roles of the company as needed. It’s “all hands on deck,” so to speak. These shared roles make it convenient for leaders to be in direct contact with customers and keep a pulse on the business. But as companies scale up, layers of management and infrastructure are usually added to handle growth, and the leadership team gravitates to focus on long-term vision and strategy.
A common challenge with this growth pattern is that it removes the connection between customer and leadership that existed in the early stages of growth.
To solve this problem, it’s important that leaders implement consistent methods of collecting quantitative and qualitative data from customers. Ongoing customer surveys are a common tool, including the Net Promoter Score (NPS) made popular in the book “The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World” by Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey. Some industries have public customer review tools such as Yelp, Amazon Customer Reviews or Google Business Reviews, which organizations can monitor on a regular basis to capture and respond to customer feedback.
One leader, Heath Phillips of the Barracks Townhomes in College Station, Texas, came up with a unique solution: He signed up to be a driver with a popular ride-sharing service and started driving for his clients to engage in conversations about his company.
In 2010, Heath founded the Barracks Townhomes to provide students of Texas A&M a great living experience with a genuine feel of community. The facilities have convenient bus routes to campus and unique amenities like a cable-driven wakeboarding lake and a resort-style pool that will open next year. Heath’s team developed the raw land and built the entire community, from finding investors to purchasing the townhomes to handling the leasing, management and maintenance services. One of the fastest growing companies in the Bryan/College Station area, the Barracks build several hundred units every year. With this growth, Heath felt an expanding disconnect between his business ideals and the customers’ perception of their brand. He explained, “As my company has grown I have been forced to continuously withdraw myself from the buyer and resident interaction.” That realization ultimately led Heath to “envision what it would look like for the CEO of a company to try and get candid and legitimate feedback from customers.”
One of the company’s core values is “Be a Unicorn,” which Heath defines as “to take a little extra time, to take a step back and look through a different lens to produce inherently unnatural ideas or solutions.” Taking that core value to heart, Heath signed up with a popular ride-sharing service as a driver and would turn on the application while he was in the office. When he saw a “pick up” request from his townhomes and he had the time, he would “accept” the ride and head out to his Suburban (or occasionally his 1966 Lincoln Continental convertible).
One of Heath’s first surprises from the experience was the amount of positive comments he heard from his clients. Initially, he prepared for numerous complaints and negative experiences. But he was joyful to learn that “we had successfully executed what our hopes and vision were 6 years ago.” It also reminded Heath of what really drives his personal core purpose – building relationships. His experience driving for his clients reinforced his decision that he needed a president to run the operations so he could focus on vision, culture and relationships. He said, “Being able to have that time to engage with the people is important and exciting to me.”
At the end of most trips, Heath informed his passengers about his position and role with the Barracks Townhomes. He also gave out $20 gift cards and didn’t charge for the rides. Occasionally, however, he would remain silent and quietly go back and have his team resolve issues or problems the residents were having. Heath stated, “It’s not always about the recognition, but ensuring we are following through with the promises I have been sharing with clients since our inception.”
When I asked Heath what he would suggest to other CEOs wanting to collect client feedback, he responded, “Figure out a way to get candid feedback from your customers for your benefit. Then figure out a creative way to share your heart and goals that you are striving for. Lastly, make sure to include a bonus for them that they aren’t expecting.”