ADT goes 'Undercover'

Company exec poses as entry-level employee on TV reality show to learn inner workings of operation
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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

BOCA RATON, Fla.—“James” is a tough former Marine, but he found his first day working at an ADT central station daunting.

“I was taking calls at the monitoring center and I was stumbling and nervous,” he told Security Systems News. He was in awe of the ADT employee who was training him on his new job at the call center Knoxville, Tenn. “She made it seem effortless,” he recalled.

Luckily, “James” doesn’t need that job at the call center. That’s because his real name is Tony Wells and he already has a job with The ADT Corp.: senior vice president, chief marketing and customer officer. Wells was only posing as James as part of an Emmy Award-winning television reality show on CBS called “Undercover Boss.”

Wells said what he learned by going undercover in January at his own company is how great ADT employees are. “They really embrace our mission around this idea of helping protect and connect customers,” he said. “They get it, they understand it and it was really good to see it come to life out in the field.”

The episode featuring Wells is scheduled to run April 12 at 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS.

In the meantime, however, ADT, which is based here, released some details about Wells’ experience on the show and what he learned.

In the popular series, a high-ranking official of a company goes undercover in that company by working an entry-level job. The official wears a disguise—in Wells’ case it was a shaved head, bushy beard and mustache, glasses, and an ADT uniform instead of his usual suit and tie. The official also uses a false name and fabricated background story and proceeds to learn about the company at the ground level.

Wells said the show has featured other service companies, but ADT is “the first in the security/home automation space.”

When ADT was invited to be on the show, the first plan was to have CEO Naren Gursahaney go incognito, Wells said.

But Gursahaney has an established presence with the company, having been president of Tyco Security Solutions, the largest operating segment of Tyco International, before ADT spun off from Tyco last fall and became an independent publicly traded company. “We all felt it would be a lot more difficult for him to go undercover,” Wells said.

Wells, on the other hand, has been with ADT just shy of a year. He most recently was executive vice president and chief marketing officer for 24 Hour Fitness. He also has experience in the automotive, financial services and retail industries, as well as serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1986 to 1991.

“Quite honestly, I’m not as well known, so [I could] maybe blend in a little bit easier than Naren,” Wells told SSN.

He became James, whose story was that he was leaving the Marine Corps to become an entrepreneur. Wells said that the premise was “basically I was looking for the opportunity to win $250,000 from a reality show that was going to give me the opportunity to start my own ADT dealership. So I was there to learn about ADT and how the business runs and about our products.”

In reality, Wells said, he was there “to learn more about what our customers were experiencing and what our employees were delivering … and to do that in a way that I think was unfiltered, informative and for me very educational.”

ADT has more than 6 million customers and about 16,000 employees in the United States and Canada.

To play the part of James, Wells spent a week pretending he didn’t know anything about ADT. “I did a number of jobs. I was in roles involving sales, residential sales, small business sales, installation and emergency dispatch operator,” he said. He traveled all over the country to do that work, including at the Knoxville central station, one of ADT’s six redundant call centers.

What did he learn?

Some things were about the small stuff. For example, he found that the ADT uniform he wore, which consisted of a pair of a pants and a shirt in the company’s signature royal blue color, was too hot when he wore it on the job in Florida.

“I was sweating,” Wells said. “I understand our uniform looks great and everything but it could be made of a fabric that’s a little more breathable.”

The larger lessons were about ADT’s employees, he said. He got a deeper understanding of the challenges they face as he worked their jobs.

“When you do it firsthand you have a greater appreciation,” Wells said. “It’s like walking a mile in someone’s shoes. The jobs are much harder than they look when you see them at first.”

But he said the employees deliver great customer service. “That was one of the things I was most impressed with: their commitment,” Wells said.

“Undercover Boss” has 9 million to 10 million viewers per week, so ADT obviously will gain some free advertising when the show airs. But Wells said that he’s most excited about the way the episode will showcase ADT employees and “give them the recognition for what they do, day in and day out.”

He continued, “You know, this is the chief marketing officer saying the best marketing we have is our employees, because every day they touch customers. I can build a great ad campaign, but if our employees don’t deliver, it falls flat and it means nothing.”