Robert Stephens

Geek Squad founder and chief inspector

In the following interview, Geek Squad mastermind Robert Stephens discusses the logic behind his first book, The Geek Squad Guide to Solving Any Computer Glitch, as well as time-tested methods for attracting and retaining top-notch employees, building a powerful brand, and pleasing the customer every time.

Explain the Geek Squad mystique: the police cars, the suits and ties, the agent language.

In the absence of a career in rock stardom, I was left with my knowledge of how to fix computers and solve problems. This is my attempt at glamorizing the unglamorous.

The Geek Squad is comprised of the top minds in computers. We solve problems that other people can't. Most corporations have their own internal support, but they get bogged down in projects or Y2K preparation. Sometimes there are problems they can't solve, and they need an outside source. That's what we are.

Our business is based on rapid response and adaptability. None of the people who work for me are certified by Microsoft or Apple, but they're kind of like Marines -- you use them when you need them, and they get the job done. Part of the idea for the pseudo-military/government look came from Men in Black and Ghostbusters. One thing that has made us successful is that we serve ordinary users -- from free agents to individuals within large billion-dollar corporations -- and they've said time after time that they like the people at the Geek Squad. So, when I hire someone, I'm not hiring just their technical ability; I'm hiring their personality. I want them to be polite, well dressed, and upstanding citizens. In our employee manual it says, "Polite driving of the Geekmobile is great advertising."

Do you find that computer engineers are attracted to the sexy side of technology?

Employees are growing more savvy about what companies they work for. They can get a job anywhere, especially in a workforce with such a low unemployment rate. You have to market to your employees, so one thing I have been telling people is that a lot of the image is not just for the business -- it's also to market to the employees, to attract the best people.

The success of that is evidenced by our really low turnover rate. My people get job offers from other companies and they stay because they get the badge and the Geekmobile. They like knowing that the company they work for is different.

How has the Geek Squad grown -- number of agents and service requests -- since you founded the company?

It started with me when I was in college. Four or five months after I was in business, I hired my first employee -- an administrative assistant -- and then I hired my first special agent. Over time, we just kept adding people as we needed them. And to this day, that's how it is. We're now hiring about one or two people a month. We're up to 30 special agents, and we get about 100 résumés a week. We hire about one person out of every thousand candidates.

The first couple of years, we were seeing double- and triple-digit growth, and now it's pretty much a steady 40% growth per year on average. But I can always use the people I have. If I doubled my staff tomorrow, within a few weeks, I could probably handle that growth.

It really comes down to, Can you fix my computer now? When can I have it back? How much will it cost? Your ability to satisfactorily answer all three of those questions determines the volume of your business. We control our growth because we won't hire people unless we feel that they're qualified. We don't risk our reputation. Every time our competitors drop the ball, we're there when those disappointed customers are shopping around, looking elsewhere.

And once they use us, they never go anywhere else. So it's a slow-growth thing, but it works really well.

Since the introduction of the iMac, which is designed to bring computing to the people, have you found that users are having fewer problems with their machines? Or just different problems?

Computers are getting easier to use, so you'd naturally think that people would not need support. But that's like saying that now that you can publish on the Web, books are obsolete. We're not sure of all the reasons why, but most of the stuff we do is not fixing broken stuff, but helping people do things. A lot of times it's for people who could do it themselves but don't want to figure it out. Computers have become easier, so more people are using them, and we have more potential customers out there.

Computers will get easier. They will crash less. But people will still figure out how to screw things up. They'll still delete files, and they'll still want to reengineer IT systems. Companies like ours will be happy to take their money.

Do you predict a shift in culture where people will learn to fix their computers rather than call for help?

Time has finally become more valuable than money for most people. We're really moving toward a flat-rate society that is saying, "I could go get the oil filter and get underneath my car and jack it up and try and do all this stuff. But I know that for $30 a national company like Rapid Oil Change can have it in and out in 20 minutes." We modeled our business after that shift. People could call up and get a fixed quote before we even touched their computer, just based on what they said. Then they'd be more inclined to use the service, even if they could do it themselves.

How does your book -- The Geek Squad Guide to Solving Any Computer Glitch -- fit into this whole philosophy, since in it you encourage computer users to take things into their own hands?

This book is really an FAQ. What you're buying from Geek Squad is our knowledge. Up until the book, the way that we delivered that information was either through phone support or house calls. We see the same questions being asked over and over and over: How do I deal with a dead battery? What do I do if my floppy drive gets stuck? What do I do with an old computer? Can I donate and get a tax deduction? I started writing down all these things.

Now, this book fits because it's right in-line with what we do. We help people, and we're just trying to get our name out there and provide something that's really not available. There's DOS for Dummies and Windows for Dummies, but there's not a book that's written in clear language to explain users' relationships with their computers.

This is going to be one of the first books to comes with text support through our Web site. We want to stand by the purchase and our brand, so if a reader doesn't find what they need, they can call us at 1-800-GEEKSQUAD or go to the Web site.

So, is the book just for technophobes?

It's for road warriors -- they're the people who know how to use computers. We even get rocket scientists and programmers who don't know how to get a floppy unstuck out of a drive. This book was written for the AOL audience. We covered the life span of your computer, from buying it, to using it and having problems with it, to getting rid of it.

What are some of the most bizarre requests you have received over time?

One woman called once because her son had put one of those chocolate diskettes in the floppy drive and it melted. The poor kid actually thought it would work. Another one was when Penthouse magazine was in Minneapolis a few months ago. They were doing a photo shoot, but they were using a digital camera and needed to hook it up to the computer and beam the photos back to New York or L.A. So they called us and I said, "Who's been this good this week?" So we sent Kyle over. He was in seventh heaven because they paid him to sit around on the set while he got the computer working with all these models standing around.

What I like about that is the idea that these dorky nerd guys who never got girls in high school are now highly sought after, highly talented, and well paid -- and they find themselves in the coolest situations. For example, we got called to do the Rolling Stones a couple of years ago, and now we actually are the sole computer support for them while they're on tour. Mick Jagger is a real big computer geek, by the way.

And we are actually working with the FBI right now on a project to help them tie together different databases for forensic examination. So we're offering our expertise to help the government in this area, to give them expertise. We're going to start teaching classes to the rookies at the police academy in St. Paul to teach them how to properly confiscate computer equipment so they can get the data back.

All we're doing is leveraging our knowledge of computers toward helping people. And if we can help law enforcement, it's good PR. It's a really interesting work, and another important part is that you got to keep the work interesting for the employees. If they just do the same laptop repairs every day, that's no fun, but if they can work with the FBI, that's cops and robbers to these guys. They love that.

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