Customer Service Training Program Guidelines
Mystery Shoppers – The Ultimate Customer Feedback

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Every time we participate in a focus group, opinion poll, telephone audit, or online survey, send a rebate card with comments by postal mail, or fill out a comment card at a restaurant, we are participating in market research. Mystery shopping is one of the most widely used market research tools used to evaluate customer service, quality, compliance, loyalty, and other issues. This is most widely observed in the hospitality industry. Almost every hotelier and restaurant, whether fine dining or fast food, utilizes a mystery-shopping program.

A good mystery-shopping program will be individualized and tailored to the client’s particular needs and focus. It will also include as much measurable data as possible, as the ultimate goal of these programs is a comprehensive report, a multi-use tool that the client can then utilize to compare locations, strengths, and areas of concern at a glance. The client can then use the information in the report to implement change where necessary, refine training techniques, and develop reward programs. More often than not, the goal of a mystery-shopping program is not to focus on what is wrong, but what is right. The program for a restaurant, for example, will involve the evaluation of the location, employees, management, menu items, promotions, and advertising campaigns. Where a fast food shop might focus more on the length of time spent in the drive-thru, number of napkins provided, and the consistency of menu items and pricing among locations, a fine dining shop will be more inclusive. Generally, reports of this nature will be divided into sections and include numbered questions. Most of these questionnaire items will have a scored, “Yes, No, or N.A.” response, while others are given a numerical rating. Most importantly, however, are the narratives. When writing a narrative for a particular section, the mystery shopper will give a step-by-step accounting of events pertaining to that section while using the questionnaire for that particular section as a guide. Usually, the questionnaire items contain the minimum amount of information required for that section, while the narrative gives a more detailed and clarified picture of the events that took place and provides an explanation whenever points are lost.

A typical fine dining mystery-shop will focus on a number of factors, usually beginning with a telephone call to the location. During this call, a reservation is made, or a question is asked, normally about hours of operation or directions to the location. This allows the mystery shopper to assess the employee and provide an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge. Upon arrival, the mystery shopper will evaluate both interior and exterior surfaces, including parking lots, walkways, entrances, and host stands. The mystery shopper will take note of the host’s attire and the ambiance, including music and lighting levels, while waiting in line or to be acknowledged. Also noted is the ease in which the reservation was located, wait times, and greetings. On the way to the table, the mystery shopper will take note of the space between tables, obstacles in the walkways, and the pace at which he or she was escorted to the table. Once at the table, the place settings, menus, and condition of the furnishings and decor in the dining area are observed. Most clients prefer to know at this point how long it took for a server to approach the table and how long it was before a beverage other than water was offered. With each employee encountered, the mystery shopper is taking note of attire, body language, greetings, closings, behavior, and the confidence in which information is provided. For example, it would be important to note if the hostess was chewing gum, or the wait staff was conversing in the corner. With most fine dining establishments, a strict dress code or uniform is in place, sometimes dependent upon the time of day. The mystery shopper will report whether or not the attire was appropriate or included additional accessories. Once approached by a server, the mystery shopper is noting whether or not wine service was offered, if specials are presented, and if specific beverages, appetizers, or starters are suggested.

During the meal, the time between courses is noted, as is the compliance of special requests and cooking instructions. Also noted are the activities of support staff in surrounding areas. It is important to know whether or not staff was unobtrusive and efficient in the removal of dishes and refilling of beverages. The mystery shopper will also take note of table resets once guests have departed and evaluate the restroom. The visibility of management staff is also reported. It is important to know if management is driving the operation and how disputes or complaints are handled. In addition to the interactions between management and guests, those between management and staff are also noteworthy. Last, but certainly not least, the mystery shopper will provide a review of food items, rating quality, presentation, temperature, texture, flavor and value. This often includes a numerical rating in addition to the narrative. Common questionnaire items include whether or not the service or food was comparable to similar locations, if the mystery shopper would return, and if the food or beverage item met with menu and server description. Occasionally, suggestions for improvement are included. This is not a commonality, however, because the role of the mystery shopper is to report objective, measurable data, not to form opinions.

It is important to note that the essence of a mystery shopper is anonymity and objectivity. The mystery shopper is you, or me, or any customer in any location. The mystery shopper is an invaluable market research tool, because he or she is in effect, a customer. A good mystery shopper understands the responsibility of this role, that the ability to accurately report this data is imperative. Mystery shopping reports can bring about a change in hours of operation, promotions and advertising, or menu items. More importantly, however, a good Mystery Shopping Provider is well aware that each and every report may have an effect on best practices, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), regulations, and even jobs. These reports may play a large role in a client’s decision to close a location, make a staff change, or update a customer service training program. When choosing a Mystery Shopping Provider, make sure that you choose one that focuses on this responsibility.

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