I feel the same way about reality TV as I do about taxes. I'd rather have my eyeballs pulled out of my sockets than deal with them, but they are facts of life. When I stumbled on a promo for CBS'
More importantly, I really wanted to get a sense of the field operations of the satellite provider whose stock I own. These are things I would never get to see. Of course, I knew that the show was going to make the company look good, otherwise there's no way DIRECTV would agree to do it. Still, I expected an education.
The front lines
White masquerades as a trainee in four divisions around the country. He goes on calls with installers. One problem they run into is a shortage of HD receivers, and the installer tenaciously tracks down a receiver for the customer. This comes on top of the fact that the installer had to purchase his own GPS device to find the customer's location. The inventory issue raises its head again on a visit to Las Vegas, where warehouse techs hoard equipment because of known shortages.
Later, White witnesses bureaucratic logjams when an installer needs to cut short an installation because of inclement weather. His last visit is to the customer service center in Denver, where he learns the secrets (and mistakes) of customer service.
It may not sound like riveting television -- Jack Bauer wasn't blowing holes in buildings with a rocket-propelled grenade -- but I was watching as an investor. I was learning a lot, but I was concerned. The problems encountered were things that could really harm a company's reputation in the long run. What would White do about it?
As a customer or investor in companies like DIRECTV and cable providers like Comcast
There are so many ways that these businesses can go wrong, it is a miracle they stay in business. Undercover Boss taught me about things I never even considered, like inventory management. The easiest way to lose customers is to not have the equipment they need when they need it. If the installer had not pursued that receiver as he had done, the customer could have shooed him away and signed up with rival Dish Network
Another lesson: We've all had frustrating customer service encounters, and all it takes is one flub -- especially with a customer signing up for new service -- and the customer could bail.
White was as shocked as I was to learn the installers had to purchase their own GPSes. Lesson: Employees need to feel valued. They need to have basic, inexpensive tools like GPS. It is the kind of little thing that, if provided, makes their lives easier, but if not provided, may create resentment that builds among the employees.
The same thing is true for installers who are made to wait on hold for 20 minutes -- just to get permission to get out of the rain. Field reps need support to operate at maximum efficiency, and to feel valued.
Wow. These are all things I had never thought about and never factored into my analysis. Bad Fool: Must hit self with hammer many times!
Because investors can't possibly know all of these facts, we have to rely on skilled senior management. Back at HQ, White demonstrated why I rely on him. He wanted these issues fixed, regardless of the cost. He didn't put a bandage on the problem -- he fixed it.
Furthermore, I liked White's demeanor and how he dealt with company employees and senior lieutenants. He knows he's learning as he goes, but seems up to the task.
The takeaways go beyond DIRECTV. They are: (1) Drill very deep into a company and use your imagination to think about all the things that can go wrong. This is an important step in investing that goes beyond the financials. Then, (2): You won't be able to evaluate how much these deep-drilled facts affect the business unless you read conference call transcripts. These are the types of things analysts ask about. Then, (3): The issues that this show raised -- if left unresolved -- might only become evident in a company's sales growth, as customers get fed up and choose competitors. And (4): It's important to have skilled management to keep a complicated ship moving.
Finally, I feel good about holding DIRECTV stock. Mike White seems like he's going to do a great job, and he has a good support staff. I think maybe I'll upgrade to NFL Sunday Ticket and help out those revenues.
Fool contributor Matthew Brown holds stock in DIRECTV, but no other company mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.