Mystery Shopping

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Mystery Shopping
By: Heidi Gill ~ 1/15/2011

Mystery Shoppers Trendy ... Or Tried and True?
Heidi Gill, California Restaurant Association

Service happens. Good or bad, it happens continually. In today's competitive market, customer service has become a top priority for many sectors of business, especially restaurants. With so much competition today, it is imperative for businesses to out-perform their competitors by staying ahead of the game.

Your servers have direct contact with your customers-customers who essentially allow you to remain open, operative and profit-customers who are the lifeblood to your business. Whether you like it or not, your customers will judge the quality of your restaurant, its food, décor, the number of times a server smiles, how they answer questions and respond to needs, and even how clean the bathrooms are. You can bet they will tell their friends-who tell their friends, who tell…you get the picture. One slip-up, even a small one, and bad service begins to whittle away precious credibility from an operation's reputation. And once lost, it's difficult to restore.

Managers can use customer complaints as a learning tool, as feedback if you will. It can be a way to ensure the customer recognizes your care. Since a restaurant's reputation is so reliant upon word of mouth, you have too much to lose by simply dismissing a request, which might just keep your customer satisfied and coming back for more, especially if they remember you cared enough to ask about, and correct a situation.

So The Question Is...

How can you ensure that your customers are satisfied? To aid in this sector, many restaurants are turning to mystery shoppers., who monitor their employees with one objective: to rate the customer's experience.

It Goes Something Like This...

A mystery shopper is a third party evaluator who poses as a customer and visits an establishment (restaurant, bar, hotel, health club, airport, golf course, store or apartment) with the purpose of evaluating and analyzing the customer service, product quality, presentation, timeliness and other specific details as requested by the client. Mystery shoppers, also known as "spotters", can do everything from creating a commotion to courteously sending plates back to the kitchen to see how managers deal with the problem. Some shoppers will even take time to report on the weight and temperature of the food with electronic equipment. They typically follow specific instructions during their visit and complete a written or electronic report after leaving the establishment. Companies that offer mystery shopping services offer different packages or service evaluation, phone, on-site, etc.

Mystery Shoppers Today...

Mystery shoppers are often found checking into hotels and cruise lines, posing as potential renters at apartments, even going under cover at doctor's offices, and fast food restaurants. The phenomenon of mystery shopping is no small potatoes; according to a recent article by Marc Ballon in the Los Angeles Times. An estimated 500 mystery shopping firms operate today-a 25% increase from just three years ago. The driving force behind this epidemic is cited as corporate America's heightened attention to the demand for customer service, which has slipped in recent years due to high turnover and layoffs. The University of Michigan began compiling consumer surveys in 1994 that indicated fast food outlets consistently scored the lowest in customer satisfaction among several industries. Due to this criticism, the Mystery Shopper Providers Association estimates that 75% of the 95 largest fast-food chains now use mystery shoppers, up from 45% just 5 years ago. There is no argument that today's consumers expect the best price, top-notch products, and superior customer service.

The Payoff Is...

Mystery shopping has proven to be an asset for those wishing to assess their staff while off location. Insightful feedback from the shopper can not only identify opportunities for improvement, but also highlight trends based upon the data collected from the shopper's evaluation.

While many companies allocate funds towards training their employees, very few monitor their programs' effectiveness afterwards. For Shawn Brady of Harman Management, using mystery shoppers enables him to do just that. "We spend about a quarter of a million dollars on mystery shoppers, and I couldn't think money better spent." Harman Management represents 300-plus restaurants, including KFC, Taco Bell, A&W, and Pizza Hut. "For the past 40 years, we've received feedback twice a month from the customer's view, which is beneficial because it gives us the opportunity to ensure better customer service," he continued. Brady did suggest that clients choose a handful of key items for the shopper evaluate, rather than a lengthy list. His concern is that asking the shopper to rate too much could result in an unfair evaluation, as they're likely to be too busy watching for the server's smile to notice if their food is warm.

Brady also uses incentives such as movie tickets or cash rewards for workers who score high or have a positive shop experience. "Overall, it gives us the upper hand and allows us to strive for the best customer service possible," Brady added.

To Mystery Shop Or Not...

Debate has arisen about the effectiveness of mystery shopping. Those who oppose the practice suggest that an individual who knows nothing about a particular workplace has no business analyzing it. They contend it can only be a recipe for disaster. "There might be explanations for the type of service that was provided," stated Kim Wirshing, an attorney for the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 2 in San Francisco. Others counter-argue that the spontaneity keeps people on their toes. Rocky Mohammed, a general manager for KFC, says, "I see mystery shopping as a great tool. We have to consider every single customer a shopper. It helps us maintain great customer service on a daily basis." No matter where the argument falls, the fact remains there will always be a debate on how to ensure great customer service. Perhaps mystery shopping is the answer for some, but not all. Meanwhile, those who prefer a tangible report revealing the way customers generally feel when they leave your establishment, can find it in an unbiased, honest evaluation from a mystery shopper. Restaurateurs can glean valuable information from a skillfully trained critical eye. Written by Heidi Gil and published in the Summer 2002 issue of California Restaurateur Magazine


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