Leadership Blog

My Experience as an Undercover CEO


I love watching episodes of “Undercover Boss.”

Yes, it’s a little formulaic at times, but it serves a tremendous purpose for those of us leading customer-facing corporations. Aside from taking service calls, how else can you find out what your end users really expect unless you go to the source?

While I haven’t taken the plunge to be on a television show (if I do, I’ll be sure to write about it!), I did get the rare opportunity to experience my own incognito moment. With the help of an innovations company, our whole team went into customers’ residences to conduct in-house focus groups. Posing as an anonymous researcher, I watched as homeowners used our cleaning products, asking questions and jotting down brainstorms. (Fortunately, I didn’t have to endure hours of wearing an ill-fitting wig or prosthetics, as most of our buyers aren’t familiar with my face.)

My objective wasn’t necessarily to improve our cleaning formulations, but to improve cleaning for people in general. If we’re going to innovate the right way, we need to understand the pain points out there. Going to these lengths was the perfect tool to achieve that goal.

To be sure, the experience was nothing short of eye-opening, not to mention humbling.

Notes From a Not-So-Random Observer

Our focus group went into a sampling of homes representing a diverse group of consumers. Some had young children, some older kids. Some male, some female. Everyone filled a unique economic level and lived in a different type of neighborhood. In other words, it was a microcosm of individuals using Jelmar items, not the “typical” family with 2.1 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence.

Interestingly enough, all the homeowners headed straight for grout cleaning during our sessions. It didn’t matter whether they used our Bath & Kitchen Cleaner or Mold & Mildew Remover; they all wanted to get their grout gleaming! And something I never suspected was how much time and effort they put into doing a thorough job. I watched them get down on their hands and knees, using our company’s products with a toothbrush.

As a busy working single mom who has the option of being able to spend time with my children rather than cleaning, I realized in that moment how blessed I am. My situation is much different than most of my customers’ because as a CEO, I don’t have time to do much of my own housework.

Honestly, I felt kind of guilty about watching these people clean knowing that I don’t need to go home and get down on my hands and knees and scrub my own grout. At the same time, it made me want to do even better to make sure our cleaning solutions allow people to quickly get the job done and move on to more enjoyable activities, like spending time with their families or getting much-needed pampering.

Taking Off the Mask

During the in-home focus groups, we asked what our customers identified with when they saw our product labels. From the American flag to the front-and-center icons, we heard what we expected. Then, one of the users surprised us. She added that she appreciated the fact that we were “woman-owned.”

It was the perfect introduction for me to pipe up. “You know, the woman-owned label is legitimate —I’m the woman. I actually own the company,” I told her. Upon hearing those words, the customer actually started to tear up and cry. She was touched that, number one, I would tell her that I was the CEO of the company, and number two, that I took the time to see how she was using our product. It punctuated the fact that we should never take any brand attribute for granted.

Of course, we also did more traditional off-site — but not in-home — focus groups to round out our research. Those focus groups were specifically geared toward talking with Millennials and giving them a new perspective on Jelmar.

Millennials are the largest living generation at more than 2 billion strong, and their buying power (not to mention peer influence via social platforms) is truly enormous. Finding out what they wanted and expected gave us food for thought in terms of our next moves.

We also learned about some of the misconceptions people have of our company, like the fact that most of them didn’t realize that we’re a small team and not a giant corporation like some of our competitors. Everything we learned was valuable in some way or another because it gave us an idea of what our customers are thinking and where we need to focus moving forward.

To reward our focus group attendees, I sent a follow-up care package as a thank-you for being honest and giving their insights, which I don’t think any of them expected (but all of them deserved).

I was honored to go into people’s houses and learn more about our Jelmar loyalists. It wasn’t a commercial or reality show set; it was genuine, personalized, and incredibly valuable. I received an education far more valuable than I could have gotten by listening secondhand about the experience from my colleagues or reading online reviews about our products.

Does it take a thick skin to embrace sitting silently at a focus group? Sometimes. But hearing the good, the bad, and the ugly nourishes the soul. If more business leaders took this type of plunge, they would receive a fast schooling in what really matters to their stakeholders. And isn’t that the best way to create new innovations to solve life’s big and little problems? I think so, and so does the Jelmar family.