Shedding Light on a Mystery

By Murray McNeill, Business Reporter

In a variation of the proverbial fly in the soup, a customer goes to a family restaurant for dinner and discovers a dead fly in his salad.

In another case, a hotel guest mentions to an inquisitive bellhop that he and his wife are celebrating their anniversary.

A few hours later a bouquet of flowers and a gift basket are delivered to their room, and the hotel manager calls to congratulate them.

What's the connection? In both cases, the customers involved were "mystery shoppers" - people hired to pose as customers to see if a retailer's staff training and customer service programs are producing the desired results.

Retail industry officials say that while mystery shopping programs have been around in some form or another sice the 1950s, their use has grown substantially in the last 5 years. Increased competition and higher consumer expectations have prompted many retailers to focus more time and resources on establishing and maintaining a high standard of customer service.

Increased demand for these services is reflected in the growing number of companies that are offering them. Mark Michelson, president of Atlanta-based Mystery Shopping Providers Association, said about 15 companies in Canada offer mystery shopping services, where 15 years ago there were perhaps two.

Winnipeg-based Probe Research Inc., got into the business about a year ago, and now has a pool of about 30 people, ranging from university students to retirees, that it uses as shoppes.

Rosemary Fletcher, Probe's director of consumer research and evaluation, said although their services have been used mostly by financial institutions, they can be tailored to a variety of retail operations.

Helen, a 40-year old "semi-retired" Winnipegger, is one of Probe's mystery shoppers. She has to remain anonymous to continue to do her job. Helen said she's visited eight to 10 financial institutions in the last four to five months, posing as a customer interested in obtaining a mortgage or a car loan.

Among things she watches for are how staff greet her, how long she has to wait for service, and how effective the loans officer is in meeting her needs.

"It can be a little bit nerve-racking," she admitted. "But it can be fun and it can be interesting."

Winnipeg entrepreneur Brenda Andre tried out a mystery shopping program for the first time last summer at her nine Perkins Family Restaurant and Bakery franchises in Western Canada, including five in Winnipeg. She said she was so thrilled with the results, she's making it an annual thing.

"It really keeps everybody on their toes," Andre added.

Lissa Cychowski, Andre's director of marketing, said the program they use has mystery diners visit each restaurant on a number of occasions between June 1 and Aug. 31. The firm that provides the service usually forwards an evaluation report within 72 hours of each visit.

Cychowski said the restaurants' staff don't know who the mystery diners are, or when they are going to show up. The kinds of things the diners look for include how long it takes staff to greet customers after they enter the restaurant, whether they greet them with a smile, how long it takes to be seated, how long they have to wait for their meal, whether their servers ask if they'd like a beverage or dessert and how clean the premises are, including the washrooms.

Cychowski said the importance of good customer service can't be emphasized enough.

"Your can have the best food and the best decor, but if you don't have that customer service, you have nother," she added.

Diane Brisebois, president and chief executive officer of the Retail Council of Canada, said customer service has become a big issue with retailers in the 1990s because of rising consumer expectations and the expanding choice of products and services available to the public these days.

"If you want to survive in this retail environment, which is very competitive, you have to pay attention wo customer service," Brisebois added.

It's also critical that retailers tailor their customer service programs to the wants and needs of their clientele, she noted. For example, if they have the kind of retail operation that caters to consumers who want to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible, they provide a different kind of customer service that the retailer that catesr to consumers who want to come in and learn as much as they can about a product before they buy it.

Probe's Fletcher and David Lipton, president of a Toronto-based mystery shopping services firm - Sensors Quality Management Inc. - encourage their retail clients to use their programs to reward employees who provide a high level of customer service, rather than just focus on mistakes and weaknesses. Programs run that way are more likely to win the support of employees.

Lipton - it was his mystery shopper who found the fly in the salad and received the gifts from the hotel - said Canadian retailers and consumers began focusing more on customer service after Wal-Mart moved into Canada in 1994. He noted there was a lot of publicity at the time about how the U.S. retailing giants put a lot of emphasis on customer service.

He added that the kinds of retailers who use his six-year old firm's mystery shopping services include hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and doctor's offices.

Copyright © Winnipeg Free Press, 1999

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