An Air of Mystery

- Mystery shopping programs can help operators improve customer service

By David Lipton.

Whether it's a hot cup of coffee, a room with a view, or new tires for the car, today's consumers expect the best price, top notch products and superior customer service. But while price and product may sometimes be out of an operator's control, customer service is one area where management can make a big difference. Offering high quality customer service can be the best way to build a lasting relationship with every customer.

But how can you improve the level of customer service? One way is through mystery shopping programs. A mystery shopper is a third party evaluator who visits a business to analyze customer service, product quality and store presentation. Inspectors follow specific instructions during a visit and complete written reports after leaving the store. This provides managers and employers with an unbiased evaluation of their operation's quality, service, cleanliness and value, with the goal of improving productivity, efficiency and profitability. By seeing exactly how employees interact with customers, management can identify and correct any problem areas. We've all seen the employee who tucks in his shirt and straightens his tie when he hears the boss is making the rounds. But with mystery shopping, companies can objectively evaluate employee performance without being threatening or giving the impression of spying on staff.

Foodservice companies utilize mystery shopping services for various reasons. For instance, according to Grey Sisson, president of Burlington, Ontario based restaurant company SIR Corp, "Mystery shopping is used as one of a number of tools to see how we are doing. We use the information to listen to our guests and to see if all their needs are being met." Some managers also use mystery shopping as a way to resolve situations before a problem reaches higher level executives, and corporate monitoring programs organized by head office are often established to observe the overall operation in order to ensure consistency.
Because each company is unique, there are organizations that can customize a mystery shopping "package" (or plan) for each specific operation. These packages may include any combination of site visits, telephone calls, or website and e-mail evaluations. Once the package is approved, unannounced visits and calls on the business are performed. Each interaction with staff, management, and customers occurs without announcing or drawing attention to the inspector as being anyone other than a client. Effective mystery-shopping programs involve the evaluation of many different areas, starting with the initial customer contact. Key areas that need work often include "profit-building" issues (such as up-selling and suggestive selling), employee knowledge, salesmanship and product presentation.

The reporting of results can also be customized to meet the needs of the operation. Some operations just request the checklist or narrative results because they want managers to simply focus on specific issues rather than the numbers. Some larger companies, however, will require a variety of statistics, charts and graphs in order to compare individual units or regions.

While many companies spend significant funds on employee training, very few businesses reinforce the training with a monitoring program. Since research has demonstrated that the majority of information obtained during training seminars is quickly forgotten, and it takes at least 30 days to develop a certain behaviour, it's important for companies to continue reinforcing key points and standards. Today's successful businesses must commit to ongoing employee development, and mystery shopping is one good way to keep employees on their toes.

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