The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth

I possess one of the most priceless gifts that fortune bestows on a mortal: An excellent relationship with a trustworthy and competent auto mechanic. Just this Monday afternoon, I handed Phil Reid 10 crisp $100 bills with nary a whimper for work he'd done on my daughter's Toyota Solero, now with 107,000 miles on it.

"The engine will run forever," Phil tells me and, as long as it stays under his ministrations, I believe it just might. "The body, I can't guarantee," he says. But who can?

I also know that Phil will do only what he has to do to our cars at a given time, will find decent used parts whenever feasible, and will alert me to potentially hazardous conditions before they leave a family member stranded with worn brakes on the shoulder of an interstate. He'll even take it upon himself to explain what he's done in crisp, clear English. I could, but won't, now pass along the function of an upstream air-fuel ratio sensor -- besides, that is, effecting the transfer of $225 from my bank account to Toyota's parts department.



But Phil's a one-off. If he knew how to systematize and franchise his rare combination of knowledge, personality and integrity, he'd be sitting under palm trees in the Caribbean, not scraping the grease from under his fingernails every night. Alas, this seems to be the case with most extraordinary providers of service and repair. They are lone wolves.

Is there not a man or woman among us capable of cloning his or her ability to fix things quickly, correctly and honestly at a reasonable price? It would be the antidote to the Curse of Technological Inertia I wrote about yesterday. Why can't I feel the same way about he cable guy and the phone guy as I do about Phil?

As it stands, the potential unintended consequences of switching all my digital service from one conglomerate to the other are all too daunting, even though I'm throwing away money by failing to succumb to all the alluring come-ons their marketing departments can muster.

I thought I had an answer in Robert Stephens, who founded the Geek Squad to help people overcome their technology deficiencies in the early Nineties with $200, a cell phone and a mountain bike for transportation. He was good and worked hard. Within a decade, he had 60 more geeks working for him and annual revenues of about $3 million. Not bad for a guy in his early 30s.

Then, in 2002, Stephen sold the operation to Best Buy, where more than 20,000 technicians now "keep the streets safe from technological evil" 24/7 for 365 days a year. The Geek Squad has been a huge differentiator for Best Buy, where Stevens is a vice president and also retains his former title as Chief Inspector.

"Calling myself 'CEO' of a one-person start-up after taking the bus to register my articles of incorporation felt a bit arrogant," he tells Colleen DeBaise of the Wall Street Journal. But without losing the comic-book/Star-Wars/shazzam sensibility with which he launched his business, Stephens has seen it blossom within Best Buy.

"Geek Squad remains Best Buy Co. Inc.'s killer app -- something that sets it apart from other national chains, even more so with the demise of Circuit City," writes Jackie Crosby in the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune. Although Walmart, Target and Costco sell more computers and are themselves getting into customer service, she points out, none of these competitors uses staff to troubleshoot and do installations.

"Geek Squad's going to become a bigger and bigger component of [Best Buy's] core strategy," Piper Jaffray analyst Mitch Kaiser tells Crosby. "Beyond driving sales, it increases customer satisfaction. Best Buy becomes the trusted adviser and the IT staff for the individual."

Stephens himself is a hoot. You might want to follow his blog, where he's taken to "open sourcing" business ideas such as one "to produce quick videos for small, medium, and large businesses starting at $99 each." (On the down side, he freely admits that his inspiration for this concept is the "eternal marketing consistency of Earl Scheib," who used to promise he'd "paint any car for just $9.95.") Ouch.

But you gotta love Geek Squad TV, the "two-minute" (or so) YouTube videos on topics ranging from how to hook up your Apple devices via Mobile Me (is this the best geek duo -- agents Donald Barthelemy and Kat Koger-Solt helping the Food Network's Claire Robinson sync her devices --you've ever seen?) to a reenactment of the movie "Home Alone" on its 20th anniversary last year.

Alas, there was no video on setting up email on an Android T-Mobile Comet and my account on GoDaddy (see yesterday's column). And that leads us to the disappointing denouement. Good as it sounds, I've never used the Geek Squad myself so I put out a Twitter feeler yesterday and got two responses. It's seems that as great as the concept may be, it not always so great in the execution.

"I lean more to the positive," says one source who takes her laptops into a store anytime they sneeze, seize or need a new piece of software installed. She says the lines are too long in New York City; service is much better in Jersey (particularly Secaucus, if you must know). But she likes the fact that the prices are upfront, the Geek Squaders will answer questions that, in retrospect, may seem lame, and she has even had an occasion or two where she wasn't charged for a fix that involved something idiotically simple.

Susan Jacobsen, on the other hand, leans a lot more to the negative based on her in-home experiences with technicians who have been called repeatedly to fix a $9,000 home theater system she bought from Best Buy a few years ago.

"The concept of the Geek Squad is fantastic," she says, "and the guys who have shown up have very respectful. It's just the whole system around it." That system means that one technician will come to diagnose the problem; another comes back to do the actual surgery. She's changed for both visits. And it's too often difficult to get an appointment without having to take a day off from work, or booking so far in advance that we'll all be barbecuing in our Bermuda shorts.

"I've actually been on something of a quest to find a Geek Squad do-over," Jacobsen says. Alas, that's exactly where we were when we first entered this story yesterday. Suggestions, anyone?

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