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Spies Like Us

by Colleen Patrice Clark
Area businesses rely on mystery shops and hospitality services to improve customer relations, increase longevity

Which dining scenario would you be more likely to remember: the courteous waitress who gets the order right, checks in on her table, and delivers prompt service; or the hungry bartender who orders some grub and asks if she can eat it in front of you so her boss doesn’t catch a glimpse?

In a world where word-of-mouth marketing might be the most powerful business tool, the latter situation would be considered a horror story. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible for a business owner to get a frontline account of what an experience is really like for a customer.

But just short of installing hidden cameras or finding themselves on an episode of Undercover Boss, many executives are turning toward the next best thing: mystery shoppers. Performed by marketing research firms that go in posed as customers, their reports result in an honest, in-the-moment look at performance and satisfaction, feedback that results not just in better business practices, but in an overall better experience for diners and shoppers alike.

And if you’re wondering: Yes, the situation with the bartender really happened—to Marc Kravitz.

“The misconception is that it’s a real ‘gotcha’ tool, but that’s not why we do it,” says Kravitz, founder of i-SPY Hospitality Audit Services, adding they’re looking for the good along with the bad, and 99.9 percent of time, they just happen to catch a bad moment during a random meal.

He refers to mystery shops as a sound business investment. By ensuring customers have a positive experience, the chances increase that they’ll keep coming back. As the adage goes, a happy customer is a repeat customer.

Though Kravitz’s company is based in Philadelphia, he works with restaurants and hotels throughout the region, including the PJW Restaurant Group (The ChopHouse, P.J. Whelihan’s, The PourHouse, and Treno Pizza Bar), along with popular spots in Atlantic City like Cuba Libre at The Tropicana and Stephen Starr’s Continental and Buddakan locations inside the Pier Shops at Caesars.

Along with that investment comes a strong training tool clients receive through this fly-on-the-wall approach. For any businesses that aren’t already utilizing the service, Robert Gallo, partner/senior vice president of GuestCounts Hospitality, the company behind Cuba Libre, has just one question: Why not?

“If they’re not, they should be,” he says simply. “I think it’s an invaluable tool. For those who don’t think it’s worth it, well, they’re just kidding themselves.”

Kravitz’s clients include everyone from fast-casual establishments to four-star restaurants; the amount of visits vary, but it’s typically an ongoing quality assurance process. “Everyone is looking to make the guest experience the best it can be and maximize sales,” he says.

What the mystery shoppers look for also differs for each client, though most will place an emphasis on the initial customer experience. After all, a first impression can be a make or break deal.

For example, Kravitz says, when the customer walks in, is the hostess stand attended, and does she greet them right away or purposely avoid eye contact as she finishes up a task?

Often, the mystery shop begins with a recorded phone call to make a reservation. Does the hostess ask them if they’re coming for a special occasion? Is there a smile in her voice? “Then when they come in, the hostess can address them by name and wish them a happy anniversary,” Kravitz says. “It gives a chance to ‘wow’ them.”

Throughout the evening, the checklist could include: recommending bar seating if there’s a wait, using measuring devices to mix drinks, meal timing, the server coming back within two minutes to make sure the meal is cooked to order, upselling, or the cut of the meat. Guidelines could be as specific as at the end of the evening, if the meal is only half eaten, does the server use some polite persuasion toward their lighter desserts, such as a sorbet and a cup of coffee?

Even if a mistake occurs, Kravitz stresses it’s the solution the guest will remember—such as offering free dessert as an apology for any inconvenience. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “The more word of mouth, the less you spend on advertising.”

Gallo couldn’t agree more, which is why he stresses it’s not a situation they take lightly. When the results come in, he reads it first and then passes it along to the chefs and other staff members so that corrective action can be taken. It’s a tool that should be utilized by anyone serious about improving business, he says. “They’re doing themselves a disservice [if not]. Ultimately, it’s the guest who gets hurt.”

And the benefits of the service extend far beyond the restaurant and hospitality industry and could be used in nearly any business environment.

“In our world, it is called the Customer Wow! Index,” says Linda Verba, executive vice president of retail at TD Bank, adding their data is mainly collected through phone surveys with about 800 customers a day who have recently conducted a transaction.

In a five-minute conversation, they are asked a series of questions, with the last being the most important: Would you recommend TD Bank to others? “We elected to go to a process like this because, quite frankly, there is no middle man. The customer is the only judge of service.”

In-person mystery shops also supplement TD Bank’s surveys and are used for more specific circumstances. Say there’s an underperforming market and management wants to get a better understanding as to the reasons, or a change was made to their banking process or a new fee was instituted. They want to make sure employees are properly explaining it to the customers so there’s no confusion.

In the wake of reports such as a study by Harris Interactive showing 86 percent of consumers have quit doing business with a company due to poor customer service, combined with a report by the Peppers & Rogers Group showing 81 percent of companies with strong customer service outperform the competition, evidence is out there suggesting that even if a mistake is made, strong customer service can more than make up the difference.

“When you’re talking about delivering a service, you’re only as good as your last performance or your last exchange with a customer,” Verba says. “Customers who are fans will cut you some slack, but you need to be looking at that every day. We’re tougher on ourselves than we hope our customers are.”

Making sure the mantra “the customer is always right” is never forgotten is one of the main motivators behind the mystery shops conducted by Mount Laurel’s The Marketing Difference. Like Verba, company President Eugene Principato’s work revolves heavily around customer satisfaction surveys, but he also uses mystery shop phone calls to ensure the potential customer is treated properly before they even walk in the door.

His client list proves the range in companies that can benefit from mystery shops—they’re almost entirely health care clients. “Mystery shops are used primarily in the retail industry,” he says, “but when you think about it, hospitals are in the retail industry. They’re providing a service to patients.”

His company will call up a hospital physician group in order to understand the level of customer satisfaction received after dealing with the receptionist. They look for a professional and personal attitude, accuracy of information and more to see if the customer’s needs are really being met.

Principato read from an example script of a woman calling the doctor’s office who is new to the area and needs a primary care provider. She has two teenage children who need sports physicals and a husband who works long hours. What kind of insurance do they accept? What are the hours? What background information about the doctor can they share?

Armed with three separate scenarios, they’ll call the office multiple times to check consistency. The final reports for the client will range from the good, the bad, to the ugly.

Principato elaborates with results from a recent shop conducted at an unnamed group in the South Jersey region. On one end, “She was extremely professional and courteous.” On the other, “She was blatantly mean, not friendly or courteous at all.”

The shortcomings unveiled benefit all involved—starting with the business and trickling down to the employee and to the everyday customer. “From the clients’ standpoint, if they want to continue to build their business, they need to do this,” Principato urges. “From a customer standpoint, it’s going to ensure they are treated better.”

As summed up by Al Lucas, vice president of operations at STARR Restaurants, “We want to always be improving our guests’ experiences. We want their hard-earned dollars to count by providing them with genuine hospitality.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4 (July, 2012).
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