Title: Why Chief Executives Should “Dogfood” Their Own Products and Services

In a recent announcement, the new chief executive of Starbucks, Laxman Narasimhan, declared his intention to work alongside employees for four hours a month, donning a green apron in the process.

While some have criticized this move as a PR stunt, others see it as a necessary step towards reconnecting with frontline workers and customers. Research has shown that chief executives spend just 6% of their time with frontline workers and a mere 3% with customers, leaving them at risk of operating in a bubble and losing touch with reality. By “dogfooding” their own products and services, chief executives can ground themselves in their company’s day-to-day operations and better understand the experiences of their workers and customers.

The Importance of Human Connection

Narasimhan’s mission to “refound” Starbucks is rooted in the universal need for human connection, something that has been sorely lacking in many businesses during the pandemic. By spending time in Starbucks cafes, manufacturing plants, and support centers, he hopes to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by his employees and customers. This focus on human connection is not new, however, and echoes the strategy of Feargal Quinn, who coined the term “crowning the customer” over 50 years ago. By putting customers at the center of his business, Quinn built Superquinn into a beloved brand that focused on personalized service and a human touch.

The Risks of Operating in a Bubble

Harvard Business School academics Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria have found that chief executives who spend little time with frontline workers risk operating in a bubble and losing touch with reality. By spending more time with workers and customers, chief executives can better understand the challenges they face and gain insights into how to improve their products and services. This is exemplified by Bill George, former chief executive of medical devices company Medtronic, who spent 30% of his time with customers and frontline employees. This approach helped him build a successful company that was focused on meeting the needs of its customers.

The Benefits of “Dogfooding”

“Dogfooding” – or using your own product or service – is a strategy that has been embraced by companies like Airbnb and Lyft. By testing their own services in frontline roles, executives gain a firsthand understanding of the challenges faced by their employees and customers. This approach can help identify areas for improvement and lead to more customer-focused products and services. Bord Gáis Energy is an example of a company that has successfully implemented this strategy, with efficient and friendly customer service that has won over customers.

The Need for Change

While “dogfooding” is a step in the right direction, it is not a panacea for all the challenges faced by companies. It took a shareholder to tell Ryanair’s board that its inhumane treatment of customers was driving people away. Similarly, Starbucks has been accused of violating federal labor laws, and Narasimhan’s commitment to working with frontline workers is seen by some as a response to ongoing strikes and walkouts. Ultimately, real change will require a commitment to respecting workers’ legal right to organize and giving them a voice in the company.

Featured image: “2017 President’s Leadership Council”, by Inter-American Dialogue, licensed under CC BY 2.0, on Flickr

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