Mystery Shoppers, Major Quality Problems

- Can They Help Hotels Head Off Major Quality Problems?


What brings guests back? A fluffy robe hanging on a padded hanger? Creamy chocolate reposing on the pillow? The jungle safari bedroom decor? Or plain vanilla, old-fashioned service? All things being equal, mystery shoppers say service wins by a smile.

"Most hotels have decent locations, are reasonably clean, have nice beds with good mattresses, offer satisfactory meals, and have prices grouped in the same range. The big difference is in the service. Anyone wanting to differentiate a property has to do it here. It's the last frontier," says David Lipton, president of Sensors Quality Management Inc.

Packing a background in the hospitality inustry, Lipton has been a mystery shopping sleuth since 1993. After finding few Canadian companies specializing in the hospitality industry, he honed in on customer service, an area he saw as weaker in Canada than in the United States. SQM armed itself with carrots rather than sticks because mystery shopping, Lipton believes, is a tool to change or develop employee behaviors. Incentives, he says, are more powerful than Big Brother.

"Except for cash/liqour control, our investigations should be used to train and work on troublesome areas. It isn't effective when you slap employees on the wrist or write them up. The idea is to develop staff and have well-spaced follow-ups, allowing time for improvement."

SQM's first step is to analyze a company's goals and objectives in relation to mystery shopping. Some want reports predicated on AAA and Mobil standards; others request regularly scheduled monitoring surveys based on company criteria. Lipton asks management to list specific standards based on operating procedures. For example, if hotel policy says phones must be answered within five rings, SQM will not penalize an employee who doesn't pick up until the fourth ring. Preferring to leave the management to management, Lipton avoids suggestions as to how many rings might be optimum.

A mystery shopper makes a reservation, books a room, and follows up with a pre-arrival call asking for directions. A shopper scrutinizes the doorman, bellman, front desk, and check-in proceduers. His or her luggage blends in with that of other travelers, but hidden within are evaluation forms. Lipton says, "Our forms are different from others. Each hotel department has one to five pages for different areas. To change ingrained behavior, we use weighing scales with three responses-yes, no, and not applicable. We have omitted subjective judgments." An evaluation usually requires a 24-hour or 48-hour inspection.

Once the door closes behind the bellman, a mystery shopper metamorphoses from pleasant to persnickety, and nothing escapes the hunt for dust, dirt, and other forms of guestroom unpleasantness. SQM's room cleanliness check runs five pages; the complete report is 75-100 pages. Lipton summarizes the top 10 and bottom 10 areas for easy reading.

Shoppes work like crime-scene cops checking everything before contaminating the scene. After probing the guestroom from ceiling to floor, the white gloves come off. It's then off to food and beverage and amenities like pools, fitness, and spa areas.

Shoppers request irons and ironing boards, extra blankets and towels, and other housekeeping items. Some order late-night room service and request liquor after what might be last call for that locality. They test phone operators with late calls, incoming fees, and wake-up calls. Since security falls within shoppers' purview, they check underground parking lots and try to get room keys without showing identification. Mystery shoppers look at everything from the guest perspective, but as guests who know the industry and can deliver an informed and well-tempered commentary. "We are paid to be picky," says Lipton.

Pam Szedelyi launched a mystery shopping business in 1983 and christened it Perks, choosing her appellation to underline a belief that service perks are what bring guests back again and again. "When I sell my service to a prospective client, I tel them how easy it is to see things done wrong. It's harder to give them constructive answers." Her system is copyrighted and has a set of standards that applies across the lodging spectrum.

Perks grades on a pass/fail system. Shoppers mark items either sufficient (meets the standard) or insufficient (does not meet the standard). Grades are itemized on spreadsheets divided by departments or across the board. Szedelyi says, "Clean is clean, and dust on a lamp at the Holiday Inn or the Ritz doesn't meet the standard, complimentary robe and candy notwithstanding."

Szedelyi's shoppers are not allowd to create a problem just to see what happens. "We never send food or wine back. So many things happen in an average visit that you don't have to manufacture something." Examples are shoppers who request nonsmoking rooms and get sent to the opposite category or clerks who loudly announce room numbers for solo women travelers. "All we look at are people-related functions, not capital expenditures. What we give management is a tool, one that can be used immediately to address problems."

Carol A. Riker of Listen In narrows mystery shopping's focus to telemonitoring. Her callers pose as potential customers and evaluate switchboard and reservations services. They dial in search of greetings that are professional, enunciated, unhurried, and courteous. All are evaluated along with effectiveness and sales skills for reservations and banquet sales. Riker develops standards, each with a point value, weighted as to what is important in job performance. A typical client call might have 20-25 items.

"Some we call three or four times a month. Some we call three or four times weekly. Our programs help hotels measure the effectiveness of their training programs. Reservations agents, for example, normally can't conceive of someone who would spend more than a minimum rate. They say, 'The lowest rate I have is . . . .' They don't try to uncover guests' needs, and an amazing number never ask for the sale." Her statistics show that last year only 77 percent attempted to upsell, and only 67.5 percent routinely explained features of the hotel or guestroom.

Riker is a member of the answer-in-three-rings phone school (only 88.6 percent of switchboards made the grade here) and a stickler for offering to rebook, which happened 82.5 percent of the time. She listens for reservations agents with "a smile in the voice" and finds them 83.5 percent of the time. Since calls may be taped, Riker insists on prior written aurthorization from the employer. She provides audiotapes and describes her costs as a "mere pittance."

David Richey, president of Richey International, dispatches shoppers to some 80 different countries, and his shoppers must allow for minor cultural differences. In Thailand, making eye contact is typically inappropriate, and many Europeans don't appreciate being continuously addressed by name. However, there are global standards such as 20 minutes to get a room service breakfast, and finite times to check in (six minutes including waiting time, less than that to get that first cup of morning coffee in the hotel's restaurant).

Most of Richey's business is outside the United States, as Europe and Asia rapidly catch up in customer service. "Many of our clients are at the upper level of the marketplace, like the Ritz Hotel in Paris. We view our relationship with clients as a long-term solution activity. Ten years ago you clould just sell services. Now we get involved with our clients to bring about a change, and we're just one tool. To improve their place in the competitive market, they need guest surveys and incentive programs."

When Richey teaches at the Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland, he frequently quotes writer Phil Crosby, "Quality is just doing what you said you were going to do." Then Richey asks his class, "Which company offers the best service, McDonalds or a luxury hotel?" The response he looks for is "McDonalds" because it does what is says it's going to do.

"We strive to help clients keep their promises and then test to see how consistently this is done," says Richey. "If it doesn't happen all the time, everywhere, then it's just a slogan."

Some of Richey's clients hire his firm to shine a spotlight on cash handling, an aspect of mystery shopping SQM also handles. Richey pegs shrinkage at 7 to 8 percent worldwide and says, "During a visit we pay cash and at the end of our survey do an audit to ensure all the money goes where it should."

The mystery shoppers we interviewed usually hire those with a hotel or hospitality background and train them to complete a mystery shop. Richey International has about 60 full-time staff working on a global basis, and the company ranks stamina near the top of job requirements.

At Perks, Szedelyi tries to match market demographics with whomever she sends, never directing the same shopper to the same property more than twice, and she has a constantly revolving set of independent contractors paid on a perdiem basis, plus expenses. "The client deserves a fresh eyeball every time someone goes in. I work with a lot of resort development and time-share properties, and once you've heard the pitch you aren't fresh."

SQM offers a variety of shoppers, ranging from average-looking families or single travelers to individuals with handicaps. "We either use local reps to keep costs down," says Lipton, "or choose shoppers experienced in a particular industry."

He believes mystery shopping serves to identify strengths and weaknesses and reinforces the training on which companies spend millions of dollars. "The program sometimes acts to raise employee pride, to make them want to do better." In Lipton's opinion, changing behaviors requires three or four months, and he suggests posting blank evaluation forms in different departments. "Employees need to see the areas that are most important. It is not fair to them otherwise."

"Hotels spend millions of dollars on advertising but little to see that a customer gets what was promised," says Diana Oreck, vice president of franchise administration at Westin Hotels & Resorts.

David Richey agrees. "A standard is different than what is contained in a marketing brochure. We help companies identify standards and go around the world measuring conformance to those standards. The United States has had a pretty good couple of years, but that can't last forever. Now it's time to focus on the operations again."

Copyright © LODGING, 1998

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