There are a variety of ways restaurant operators can get a pulse on unit-level performance, but few provide the same unique, objective perspective of mystery shoppers.
Even in an era of Big Data, when businesses can glean real-time information about customer activity from their POS platforms, mystery shopping remains a significant opportunity for operators as it can uncover a "micro view" that tech platforms miss.
"Brands spend dollars training employees on things they know lead to positive experiences for the customer. While customers can give near real-time feedback these days, brands still don't have a way of knowing whether the operations processes that they've trained their teams for are working," said Kimberly Nasief, president and founder of Measure Consumer Perspectives, which provides market research for a variety of industries and restaurant brands including A&W, Qdoba, Papa John's and Taco Bell.
So, while big data has earned its buzz for helping operators gauge overall brand health, the micro data also needs to be considered.
"It gives the individual location insights that are both engaging and actionable," Nasief said. "It also allows for the brand to ascertain what is and isn't working as it relates to training, operations and protocol."
Mystery shopping not only complements POS data, but also customer feedback from surveys, social media, reviews, etc. As Nasief explains, customers can give sentiment, but they don't have the trained eye to provide that micro view that shoppers look for.
The micro view
For the restaurant industry, shoppers are looking at a variety of components, from customer service to speed of service. Across segments, shoppers also look for upselling opportunities, staff engagement, teamwork, cleanliness, order accuracy, food quality, food temperature and food presentation.
Nasief said a drive-thru shopper will focus more heavily on wait and delivery times, versus a casual dining segment, where the focus is on wait time, teamwork and courtesy.
In order for shoppers to be most effective, restaurants should schedule a visit multiple times per period, during the busiest and most profitable dayparts. They should also be scoping out weekday versus weekend operations, the bar service and the dining area.
A mystery shopping program can also help with marketing initiatives. For example, shoppers can ensure a campaign is rolled out on time, without delay, and consistently across the entire brand. They can also make sure the new menu offering is being promoted on site by staff.
Once the experience has been recorded, restaurants should follow up as soon as possible.
"With shops delivered back to the client within hours or a day or two of the experience, clients are able to closely monitor the operations in conjunction with customer satisfaction indexes to quickly step in and adjust or reward behaviors at the location level," Nasief said.
Many mystery shopper companies will then help the brand further facilitate training or additional follow up if need be. Measure Consumer Perspective, for example, partners with a third party training firm, Fresh Revenues, for this purpose.
Having a third party training firm, Nasief said, eliminates any conflict of interest that may arise from both the shops and the training.
Trips and tips
The top three mystery shopping misfires from restaurant operators are:
- Brands opting out of shops for customer satisfaction (surveys). "One does not replace the other, but they fill complementary needs," Nasief said.
- Asking too many questions. "Focus only on the things you know directly affect loyalty, quality and satisfaction," she said.
- Siloing the data. "Marketing, operations and training all have different agendas and metrics. These metrics all need to come together in an omnichannel manner. The presentation of all of them together tells a greater story about the health of a brand, from the bottom up," she said.
Finally, Nasief offered three suggestions for operators considering a mystery shopping program, including:
- Remember that shoppers provide a different level of feedback than customers; don't discount either channel.
- The use of hidden camera technology in mystery shopping is a powerful, actionable, non-arguable training tool.
- Use the program as a way to reward your employees, not punish them.
Photo provided by Wikipedia.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.