Robert Stephens started Geek Squad with $200, a cell phone and a bike. He made house calls doing what felt right: helping people with their problems and making them feel less intimidated by technology. In 1994, this was a big deal because technology was hitting home in a big way.
“I started Geek Squad within a month of the first Web browser coming out,” says Stephens, who had been fixing computers for a different company in his hometown in the Twin Cities after earning a computer science degree at the University of Minnesota. (He dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago to pursue his passion for the technical.)
Stephens didn’t have a marketing budget when he launched his homegrown venture. He had drive and an idea. “I grew up with Star Wars and we had a computer in the 1980s—I was always taking things apart as a child, and I also liked helping people,” he says, relating how this business launch seemed like the natural thing to do.
The meager seed money that Stephens poured into the business blew up into an estimated $1billion to $1.5 billion during a 20-year period, and Geek Squad today is the largest tech-support organization with about 24,000 employees, referred to as “agents.” Stephens sold Geek Squad to Best Buy in 2002 and continued to serve as its CEO and the chief technology officer of Best Buy until 2012, when he left to pursue other entrepreneurial projects.
Geek Squad might be the biggest part of the Best Buy brand. But there was no marketing stunt in mind when Stephens started the tech services firm, known for its white-and-black VW Beetles and “agents” wearing white shirts and black ties. “For me, the cars and uniforms are not marketing gimmicks,” he says. “The business operations is the marketing.”
“Helping people is the best advertising,” he adds.
How you conduct business, the way you provide customer service, how you present yourself on the street is what creates the brand. Even how you answer the phone. “All of those things paint pictures for customers,” Stephens says, adding that when he started Geek Squad, he couldn’t afford a graphic designer to create a logo anyway.
“I had to do those things myself,” he says, adding that businesses have access to a range of tools today to market their organizations. “This is the era of YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other social media that are advertising channels.”
Here, Stephens talks about how business owners can leverage their ultimate marketing advantage: business strategy and uncommon customer service.
Helping is timeless. Technology gets outdated—fast. But customer service is always relevant and in demand. If you ask Stephens, he’ll tell you Geek Squad isn’t really a tech business. It’s a helping business. “There is a tech aspect, but it’s also a lot like a small restaurant or a boutique hotel where there is a lot of customer experience that goes along with it—showing up on time, dressing nice, and helping regular people feel comfortable with technology and not feel overwhelmed,” he says.
Build trust. People open their doors for Geek Squad. They invite agents into their homes, expose their data and share their problems. Customers are a little vulnerable—they’re also overwhelmed and looking for answers. Earning trust is critical to growing a service business, and Geek Squad adopted a flat rate fee structure to show customers their intentions were to solve problems, not run up a large hourly bill for tech services.
“Flat rates were a way to build trust early on,” Stephens says, relating this removed risk for customers who took a chance on hiring Geek Squad. And, when Geek Squad agents meet with customers, they listen. “Every time we touch a customer, we are learning more about what they want—we are seeking insight,” Stephens says.
Hire bright people. Geeks love to learn about technology. So training for skill was not a big focus for Stephens and he knew he could teach anyone to fix computers. “But I can’t train people to be nice and to care about customers,” he says. “Either you do or you don’t. I would always hire for the qualities I could not train for, and the three most important traits are curiosity, ethics and drive.”
Curiosity is essential because agents must solve problems. And, they must care about learning more about the customer, Stephens says curiosity is the No. 1 trait for successful businesses in the 21st Century.
Ethics are critical because of the nature of Geek Squad’s business, working in customers’ homes. And drive is the persistence to do it right. “Everyone has had services where they don’t get it done right the first time,” Stephens says. “You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to have the persistence to get it right and not drag your feet.”
Solve problems. What are you really selling? If it’s just the technology, you could be obsolete by the time you finish reading this article. Focus on the customer and their needs. Find out what makes them tick—what do they want to do better. “You’re not selling a drill, you’re selling a hole on the wall, so focus on the hole the customer wants because the drill might not be the answer,” Stephens relates. “Maybe you need a hole-punch, or a sideboard with a hole already cut in it—sometimes you have to think more broadly.”
Be responsive. “The easier you are to talk to as a business, the more business you will do,” Stephens says. That’s why messaging is the best technology advance to come around since the Web browser opened up the World Wide Web in 1994, he says.
Stephens explains: “Right now, if you use Google Maps or Yelp, the only way to interact with a business is to call that business, and that’s quite inefficient—it ties employees up on phone lines, and does anyone really believe the call is being recorded for quality? But if you can text a picture of your problem and see a copy of that message, that’s a persistent conversation. Facebook messaging is free, and I encourage every business to use it.”
This article was originally featured in the July/August 2015 issue of the COSE Update.