As an expert in the hospitality sector, I have designed and implemented mystery shopper programmes for hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, fitness centres, golf clubs, contract caterers and private members clubs. It was this experience and knowledge that led me to write my debut novel ‘The Mystery Shopper & The Hot Tub’. In it there are many, very funny mystery shopping incidents, which if you’ve ever fancied yourself as a mystery shopper, you would find insightful, if not jaw dropping!
Mystery Shopping is essentially the measurement of a set of standards that have been set by a company and that are measure by an independent assessor, who has no stake in the outcome. They have to produce a report at the end of the assessment, which then goes to the client. The company then uses the reports to help with training staff and managers and making other improvements in their business.
1. You have to be an extremely proficient liar and actor!
Some assessments involve really rather elaborate ruses, which puts the assessor under significant pressure, where they may have to think on their feet. For example, many hotels have conference and banqueting facilities and the sales team have to be tested. An assessor would have to go along for a ‘show-round’ and with a story about what kind of event they are hoping to hold in the hotel in order to test how well their enquiries and requirements are met. So, an assessor might decide they are “holding a product launch for a piece of fitness equipment and only organic and carb free food and drink is to be offered to between 100 and 200 attendees. A music system, projector for a presentation and a stage for the equipment would be required” or they might choose to “host a 40th birthday party for a member of their family where 20 of the guests will be children under 11yrs old, one of whom has a serious nut allergy and what can they offer to keep the children occupied?” You get the picture!
2. You must have an excellent memory.
Some of the questionnaires that assessors are given – especially for overnight hotel visits – have around 350 standards that must be measured; everything from ‘Was the toilet roll folded over into a neat triangle at the end?’ to ‘Were all staff you came across wearing their name badge on the left-hand side of their breast pocket?’ You cannot take the questionnaire with you. The most you can do is memorise what you have to assess just before that part. For example, before you head down to breakfast, you should read the 55 questions that relate to breakfast and remember them! Much, much tougher than people think!
3. You have to be ruthlessly objective.
Your own personal opinion must go out the window. Assessors have to measure against the standards that the client has set – not that the assessor thinks should be the case. For example, in the pro shop of a golf club, the client may have set as a standard that the professional must approach every customer who comes into the shop and offer assistance. If as the assessor, you just want to be left alone, that’s too bad. You might not like it but you would have to say that the golf pro correctly carried out the standard. I had one instance where an assessor was doing a mystery visit at a Café Rouge. The report came out with a 100% score, but the assessor didn’t enjoy the visit one bit! The standards that the client had set, although met perfectly, were very different from what the assessor would have set.
4. You have to be prepared to complain
Every single hospitality business suffers with customer complaints and it has to be said that staff – and even managers – are often shocking at dealing with them, even if they have been trained to do so. Every mystery assessment includes ‘You must make a complaint about something and assess how well it was dealt with.’ For people like me who could write a book about the number of complaints I have made to various businesses it’s not a problem, but assessors often find this part very difficult and awkward as it’s just not in their nature. Even if the meal/ drink etc was perfect, they have to make something up! It could be ‘My coffee isn’t hot enough’ or ‘I don’t like the taste of this beef stew’ or one assessor I know used to steal the toilet rolls from the toilet and then complain ‘there are no toilet rolls in the loo’!
5. You have to eat even when you don’t want to!
In the assessment of restaurants, it is usually a requirement that you assess all three courses; starter, main course, dessert and coffee. Depending on the restaurant, you might be absolutely stuffed after main and not want a pudding at all – but you have to have one! The client is paying for every single standard to be assessed and you cannot choose to opt out of a heavy pudding, just because you feel full up! They want to know how it was presented, what it tasted like, was it at the correct temperature etc.? Another really good example of this, is when assessors have to test out room service. Depending what time the assessor arrives at the hotel, they may have to eat dinner – and then order food from room service just a few hours later, without causing suspicion! Only the best assessors know how to carry this off.
If a mystery shopper has the right attributes, they can make a genuine difference to how businesses operate. Mystery shopping is good fun and interesting, but in my opinion, it should also be viewed as a privilege.