Geeks in ‘Da House
Commentary by Rick Moss
geek – noun – 1: a carnival performer often
billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live
chicken or snake
Amazing how words bubble up through the lexicon. The term “geek” has come a
long way, from sideshow freak to world’s-richest-man. Geeks may be more respectable
nowadays, but the term stuck for a reason. A more contemporary definition found
on Dictionary.com is “a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific
or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.” (Somewhere along the
line, they must have hired good PR people.)
After Bill Gates, perhaps the best example of the “Geek Chic” phenomenon is
found in Best Buy’s Geek Squad, that house call-making team of computer experts
that have elevated the comfort level of many customers while pointing to higher
margin possibilities for electronics retailers.
At a recent Reuters Consumer and Retail Summit, top execs at America’s two
leading office-supply retailers, Office Depot and Staples, were asked about
their strategies relative to high-tech customer service. They agreed on its
merits, i.e. good margins; better consumer loyalty. They disagreed, however,
on staffing approach.
Office Depot has made an outsourcing arrangement with Best Buy, now in test,
to offer round the clock Geek Squad services to its customers. Revenue is shared
between the two companies. “The concept is to expand (Best Buy’s) business and
leverage the overhead and training they’ve got in place (which) doesn’t require
our big investment,” said Office Depot Chief Executive Steve Odland.
Conversely, Staples has gone the in-house route, developing its own “Easy Mobile
Tech” (EMT) program a few years ago. Explained Ronald Sargent, Chief Executive
at Staples, “We want to control and own our customer. We don’t want to let other
people control and own them.”
“The problem with outsourcing is that it costs you more and you give up your
contact with your customer,” Sargent added.
Moderator’s Comment: How important is it to keep the
experts in-house? Isn’t intimate product knowledge important to running a good
Now…some of my best friends are Geeks, but it’s easy
to imagine a big collective sigh of relief coming out of Office Depot’s human
resources department when they found out the whole service was being farmed
out. Socially inept is one thing, but when they’re smarter than you…well it
makes for challenging performance reviews, let’s put it that way. Even so, it
doesn’t seem logical to me. By relying on out-of-house intelligence, you’re
separating your brains from your beauty.
Staple’s Sargent said that one hidden advantage of building
their team in-house was that it provided entry positions for people interested
in careers in IT, not just retail sales.
Whether it’s explaining why you should sell the customer
a Bluetooth-capable device or showing a shopper in produce how to prepare a
fresh artichoke, experts are best when they’re integrated throughout the organization.
Experts are, well…smart. And smart is good, even if it makes conversations
at company picnics a bit more challenging. –
Rick Moss – Moderator