Geek Squad: Best Buy's Corporate Mythology

January 14, 2009

By Kerri Susan Smith

We all know the Best Buy brand -- the big-box stores have been around for 30 years, populated by employees wearing blue shirts, selling products emblazoned with the yellow tag.

Around 10 years ago, services began taking center stage -- derailing some industry leaders and empowering others. It was time to do something different. Best Buy leaders "started looking at how to get closer to our customers," said Sean Skelley, senior vice president of services for Best Buy Co., Inc. They came up with the concept of "relatable mythology," a story that connects the business to its customers.

Skelley was speaking to customer-service leaders attending the Compete Through Service Symposium. The annual event is hosted by the Center for Services Leadership at the W.P. Carey School of Business. The heavily attended event draws more participants each year as services becomes increasingly important across industries.

A corporate mythology is a set of folklore and stories passed on from employee to employee that captures the essence of the firm's culture and way of doing things.

Best Buy sampled a range of companies to determine what a corporate mythology might look like, and how it could be used. "We partnered with different companies. We looked at what competitors in our space were doing, and then we looked outside our space to see what other companies and industries were doing well, like FedEx and Ritz Carlton," he continued.

They distilled the best and most effective elements of corporate mythology into a four-point template: frequency, intimacy, continuity and acquisition.

Customers come back for more

Two companies were especially adept at creating a mythology translatable into customer loyalty: Jiffy Lube and Starbucks. (Skelley noted that both companies are currently in downward spirals, "an example of how quickly things change." At the time, however, Jiffy Lube and Starbucks were two businesses with innovative customer service).

Example: everyone knows you're supposed to get your oil changed every 3,000 miles. But that was a Jiffy Lube marketing creation rather than an automotive standard, Skelley said. It is the way the company pulled customers back into their stores on a frequent, regular basis. Then there was that little Jiffy Lube sticker the mechanic put on your windshield, saying when it should be serviced again -- a continuity strategy as well as an acquisition point.

Obviously Jiffy Lube customers at some point will sell their cars. The company built intimacy with customers by putting vehicle maintenance records on line and accessible to owners. "Today, Jiffy Lube is practically irrelevant, as car dealers have taken back those low-tech services. But for a while, they had it right," Skelley noted.

Starbucks was another early bloomer that deftly applied the four-point template. Starbucks figured out its customers were regulars who liked being treated as coffee connoisseurs, by baristas who recognized them. And they wanted to have the same experience every time they walked into a Starbucks.

Marketing research revealed that the typical Starbucks customer came in an average of 18 times a month and appreciated it when the barista knew their regular order. They also wanted to find a Starbucks everywhere -- in business districts, airports, shopping malls -- where the familiar roasted-bean smell and pastry treats awaited them.

Creating the Best Buy mythology

Skelley said Best Buy strategists realized they had to figure out what it meant if 40 percent of PCs brought in for repair arrived around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoons. What did this mean? How did the mythology-creating formula apply, and how could it best be leveraged to attract and retain customers?

Around that time, a small Minneapolis company by the name of "Geek Squad" made Best Buy's radar.

Did you ever buy a new computer and realize that you were clueless on how to hook it up? Has a virus ever hit your operating system like a bad cold, and you can't seem to shake it? The Geek Squad stood ready to come to you and fix it on site. Founded in 1994 by Robert Stephens, "they were like the plumbers of computers," Skelley recalled, "with 30 people in Minneapolis and a couple in L.A. and another in Chicago. Tiny!"

But Geek Squad had a cohesive and appealing mythology that worked with customers using computers at home. Based on a common frustration -- "my computer is down and I don't know what to do" -- Geek Squad's approach was reassuringly intimate: "Of course it's confusing, but we'll be right there to rescue you."

Geek Squad marketed itself effectively through stories that had characters. Employees would be called "intelligence agents," divided into functional units. For instance, "counter intelligence agents" would help customers in the store, from behind the counter, etc. "Special agents" would go on home calls, to install or repair products. "Double agents" would be cross-trained to work in either environment. "Covert agents" would assist customers remotely, over the telephone and Internet.

"These well thought-out stories help set up expectations for customers, like the Starbucks baristas. We were interested in Geek Squad for these stories, and the brand elements that could help Best Buy get its ducks in a row," Skelley explained.

So he met with Geek Squad founder Stephens and began brainstorming. "As I see it, Rob and I began dating eight years ago. We acquired Geek Squad six years ago. He likes to say Geek Squad acquired Best Buy, and in truth, the acquisition did change our history. It also convinced us that it is necessary to have a story that people can believe in passionately," he continued.

Marketing the Geek Squad services part of the big box's offering took time and planning. New posters went up in the Best Buy stores. Geek Squad services were tested in some stores for a year, then rolled out nationwide four years ago. One of the early challenges was scale; Geek Squad was small, Best Buy was big -- where would all the agents required for a national rollout come from?

"In truth, there are a tremendous amount of geeks out there. Geeks are like the car mechanics of the '60s, when almost everyone worked on their cars. Now, everyone grows up working on computers instead of cars. We put them to work," Skelley said.

Besides the in-store posters, Best Buy carefully marketed its new services. Each customer got a Geek Squad advertisement tucked into their bag at purchase. Geek Squad was the technical support for the 2004 presidential election, garnering plenty of attention. To boost visual awareness of the Geek Squad's famous black-and-white Volkswagen beetles, the company swarmed major streets in town after city with branded cars.

Service is central

In 2004, home theatres became an important sales hotspot for Best Buy, and the Geek Squad became heavily involved in the set-up, maintenance and repair of them. While customers were most excited about the large screens, calibrating the sound is key to the value of a home theatre, so tweaking the audio to perfection became a specialty of the special and double agents.

"Service is critical in almost every single step in customer relations. Ten years ago, our services consisted of warranties, and we weren't the best. Now, we are," he concluded.

Best Buy serves customers in more than 1,000 stores and 16 repair centers staffed by over 12,000 Geek Squad agents.

The average age of a Geek Squad agent is 27. "We don't care about their age, just that they show up clean, wearing deodorant and appropriate clothes. And when we asked our home customers how they perform, we get a 97 out of 100 score on our agents -- how they look, how they approach the task," Skelley said.