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Going Undercover to Size Up Service

The Financial Post, Wednesday, September 21, 1994. Randall Scotland

The fashionable talk in management circles is all about getting close to the customer by improving service.

Indeed, many companies, especially those in highly competitive sectors, emphasize their customer-first policies. But to ensure the commitment is more than lip service, retraining is often required to motivate the rank and file.

The trick is to do that while keeping a lid on costs. Customer satisfaction is important, but so is the bottom line. Spending hard dollars on training programs, and perhaps beefing up staff to meet the mandate for better service, can be expensive in times of restraint.

That’s particularly true for companies that have downsized. Some have found they may have cut too deeply.

“In some cases, they’ve had to hire back, maybe on contract, some of the people they let go,” said Barry Cook, Vancouver managing partner of Western Management Consultants.

They have little choice but to do so. In some quarters, notably retailing, the arrival of aggressive U.S rivals is intensifying the need to up the service ante to remain viable.

But it is one thing to say service is a priority, quite another to prove it is working. The need to audit performance is becoming a growth industry.

To satisfy the demand for measurable results, more and more companies are using comment cards, satisfaction surveys and 1-800 telephone numbers to solicit customer feedback. Others rely on evaluations from outside consultants to sleuth out the truth.

One such firm is Mystery Shoppers Inc. of Oakville, Ont. As the name implies, the company goes undercover to test, among other things, how well workers uphold their employers’ standards.
Once the findings are in, management uses the information to take remedial action – and to reward outstanding employees.

“A lot of my clients have award systems built into the evaluations process,” said Nicholas Samson, president of Mystery Shoppers.

“If they reach a certain score they get different types of awards, either pins or vouchers or dinners. Even money.”

The need for service audits is growing because companies have to know how effectively employees understand and use their training, said David Lipton, president of another sleuthing firm, Sensors Quality Management Inc. of Toronto.

“[Companies] send them out into the trenches and they might get the odd bit of [new] training once a year, or once every five years, or whenever the budget allows.

“But they’re not being watched to see how closely they’re coming to those standards or criteria they were originally taught.”

The audits can uncover some surprises, Lipton added.

Say a hotel wanted to compare its phone reservation system with the competition. If an audit shows that operators are answering calls within three rings, while a rival takes five or more, management could justify reallocating some reservation staff.

The service level would remain competitive and other departments would benefit from extra employees.

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