Mystery shoppers may be lurking

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Published: July 2,2001

Soon after Maryville, Tenn.-based Ruby Tuesday opened a restaurant at 2520 Lakeland Drive in Flowood May 23, the company contracted A&M Business Services to dispatch mystery shoppers. Their mission? To evaluate the restaurant.

“Mystery shopping is only one of the many different tools we use to measure guest feedback,” said Sarah Blacker, market research analyst for Ruby Tuesday. “We also use telephone interviews and guest intercepts at restaurants. We do a lot of different kinds of research. We have nearly 600 restaurants, and we want to hear what our guests have to say about our food, the service, the building and grounds.”

A mystery shopper is someone recruited to visit a retail store, restaurant, bank, apartment community or other business posing as a typical customer to evaluate customer service, product quality and store presentation. Mystery shoppers receive specific instructions prior to the visit and complete written reports after leaving the store.

“Mystery shopping is primarily a control mechanism to get employees in the store to behave as the management intends,” said Barry Babin, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern Mississippi. “It’s to make sure customers are treated as management wants them treated. It also acts as an audit of the operation, such as verifying that receipts are given on every purchase. Sometimes mystery shoppers are sent in to try to get away with things that the business doesn’t allow to see how well employees adhere to the policies.”

Kris Davis, vice president and director of research of the GodwinGroup in Jackson, often contracts mystery shoppers. She said it provides honest objective feedback from the customer’s point of view.

“Mystery shopping allows us to go through the experience, whether it’s making a purchase or receiving a service,” Davis said. “We recruit shoppers based on specific criteria — demographics or personality characteristics, for example — and train them to look for specific information. They may tell us how long they had to wait in line or rate the level of service they received. They give us a tangible evaluation of the experience that a business really cannot do for itself.”

A few industry statistics: the average business does not hear from 95% of its unhappy customers. However, unhappy shoppers tell their friends. A satisfied customer will tell four people while a dissatisfied customer will tell 10 people about the experience, Davis said.

“Consumers are savvier now,” she said. “They’re scrutinizing the service they receive a lot more than in the past.”

“Service is so much more than just delivering a product, it is the manner in which it is delivered,” said Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association. “In a recent survey, customers were asked what would cause them to stop going to a particular restaurant. Sixty-seven percent said poor service attitudes. Note the answer was poor service attitudes, not necessarily poor service! Any restaurant is prone to make mistakes. It is how those mistakes are resolved that defines the service culture of a restaurant.”

A major credit card company revealed that customers are apt to leave a server a larger tip even after encountering a problem if the server handled the problem professionally, Cashion said.

“Generally speaking, consumers are understanding and tolerant of mistakes if there is a genuine sense of urgency shown to fix the problem,” he said.

Mystery shoppers are paid for each visit or given some incentive for their time. The rate of pay may range from $15 to $50 and up, depending on the complexity of the assignment. If the purchase of a product is required, they are reimbursed. For example, A&M Business Services offered scheduled mystery shoppers at Ruby Tuesday reimbursement of meals up to $25 before 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and up to $40 after 4:30 Friday and Saturday, but nothing extra.

“Most of the time, mystery shopping is not a traffic generator because there’s usually only a small group sent to make evaluations,” Davis said.

Blacker said, “We don’t use mystery shopping to bring in new customers, but if it happens to cause someone to come back who’s been introduced that way, then of course we’re glad to get the return business. But that’s not ever the goal of mystery shopping.”

Clients are often surprised by the results of mystery shopping, Davis said.

“Oftentimes, their employees do better than they think they will, and sometimes, they may find that they’re not fulfilling the customer’s needs like they think they are,” she said.

In times of economic downturns, companies often make the mistake of cutting costs at ground level — customer service, Babin said.

“That just aggravates customers that do come in the store,” he said. “It may be smart in the short term, but in the long run, they won’t come back.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

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