Satisfaction: 'Mystery Shopper' Provides A Trained Eye For Local
By JOHN FITZGERALD Of The Gazette
product quality, all are the angels of the service world. And when
those angels turn to devils, they need to be exorcised quickly and
To do this,
a business needs a trained eye to survey the store and report back.
That's what Kurt Hughes provides - a trained eye.
Quality Service Assurance, but his job has a cooler name - mystery
shopper. Businesses hire Hughes to buy their product, then report
back about his experience.
has a waitress asked you 'How was your meal?' " Hughes asked.
"You always answer 'Fine.' It's a rhetorical question. Even
if you did give her an honest answer, it doesn't get back to the
cook or the manager. My response goes straight to the boss."
corporations employ mystery shoppers, "but they're large companies
to look after other large companies. I asked myself, who's going
to look out for the little businesses? The answer was, nobody."
So, after working
for a major mystery shopper company, Hughes started his business
six months ago. This came after previous stints running a program
for the handicapped, working as an outfitter, running a convenience
store and promoting international hunting trips.
his service to many types of businesses, including retail stores,
restaurants, convenience stores and motels. He employs six other
mystery shoppers, two adult males, two adult females, one male teen
and one female teen. He uses them for return visits, or when the
store he's been hired to canvass isn't appropriate for a middle-aged
male like himself.
shopping evaluations. Everything from cleanliness and
service to the state of the parking lot is described in a form.
While the mystery shopper will rank the services from one to 10,
the key to the form is the narrative section, Hughes said.
"Each business is different, and each shopping experience
is different, so trying to make that conform to a form is difficult,"
he said. "That's why I meet with the owner or manager and
customize a form to meet their needs."
satisfaction and loyalty surveys. "These are done
after the purchase," he said.
Most common is a form sent to the buyer in the mail, but most
effective is having a male and a female standing outside the
door of the store. They ask if the store had what they were
looking for, if it had what they weren't looking for, and if
the service was good.
"If you catch them when the experience is fresh in their
mind, you'll get the lowdown," Hughes said.
evaluations. "A lot of times it's not kosher for
the manager and owner to go into a competitor's shop to check
things out. First of all, it's like spying, and second, if someone
notices them in their competitor's shop they'll say 'Hey, they're
eating the other guy's food and not their own'."
But it doesn't
stop there. One company hired Hughes because the owner had heard
a competitor was badmouthing his store to customers. Hughes checked
it out. He found that the rumors were false, which gave the owner
peace of mind.
Peace of mind
is a common reason he is hired, Hughes said. Many owners and managers
want to know what's going on when they're not there. This is one
way to keep tabs on the employees.
of examining the store begins when he gets out of the car, he said.
Is there sufficient parking? Is the lot and building clean? Is there
appropriate signage? At night, is the sign lighted?
he looks at the floors, tables and windows to see if they're clean.
If it's a restaurant,
he'll look closely at the menus. "Are they clean? How many
times have you gone into a restaurant, opened the menu and there's
a big blob of ketchup stuck in the middle?" He'll look to see
if there are enough items on the menu and if they're fairly priced.
check the bathrooms to see if they're clean and well-stocked.
If he's checking
a hotel, the experience starts on the phone with a reservation.
Is the clerk well-spoken, friendly, knowledgeable and organized?
When he checks into the hotel, is he given the price quoted to him
on the phone?
He checks the
rooms for cleanliness. "Often I see that quarter-inch of dust
running around the edge of the carpet where the vacuum cleaner won't
go," he said. "Don't you just hate that?"
At all stores,
he checks the service. Are the employees on task? Are they doing
what they should be doing?
Do they seem
happy or surly? "How many surly people have you seen waiting
at restaurants lately," he said. "It drives me nuts."
upselling. "That just goes to the bottom line," he said
of the practice where a waitress will ask you if you want a drink
before dinner or a dessert after.
How is the
product quality? Is the food good? Are the shelves well-stocked?
Are the prices legible?
The last page
of Hughes' evaluation form is a blank page that he and the owner
can use to add items specific to that store.
If the owner
asks, Hughes will target his evaluation toward a specific employee
or shift. "One owner was concerned about his Sunday shift because
he doesn't go in on Sundays."
One thing he
won't do is check the company for theft. There are other companies
that will do that, he said.
One of Hughes'
customers is Scott Prociv, the owner of Hotspring Portable Spas.
us to have fresh eyes," Prociv said. "It's a way to see
what it's like for the customer to buy a product when there's so
many 'me too' product out there, like coffee, pizza, whatever. You
need somebody with a new, fresh look to come in and gain data on
our product and what they see and what they experience when they
It's not one
thing, it's a lot of little things, Hughes said. "It's a smile,
bringing a drink to the table, having the manager greeting customers,
a phone call after the purchase of a big-ticket item. It's all these
left, gets a smile from Brian Thompson at the Rocket Burrito restaurant
in Downtown Billings. Smiles are important to Hughes, who runs Quality
Service Assurance, a “mystery shopper” company. Merchants
hire Hughes to visit their businesses, posing as a regular customer,
and then report back on his experience.