Mystery Shoppers Get Paid to Gripe

By Dana Flavelle, Business Reporter, The Toronto Star

If you've ever waited an eternity for a restaurant meal, tried to find a helpful clerk in a nearly vacant department store, or been put on hold by a telephone answering device, you want to meet David Lipton and Craig Henry. They're professional consumers.

They get paid to shop - anywhere from $40 for a one-time restaurant visit to $1,600 for a two-day hotel stay complete with an in-depth assessment of all services. And they get paid to complain - something the rest of us don't do very often or very well, they say.

"Canadians get the service they deserve," says Lipton. "Americans and Europeans would never put up with the service we get." In fact, that's one of the big reasons, especially retailers, are starting to pay more attention to the service they provide.

In the much ballyhooed global economy, where we're all competing with companies beyond our borders and in some cases - such as Wal-Mart - foreign firms that are invading our turf, it's no longer good enough to just send out the sales staff with instructions to smile.

Bad service isn't confined to the obvious stuff, like surly cashiers and hotel staff who can't give directions to major tourist attractions. It's more subtle.
Did the airline reservations agent thank you for choosing Air Whatever - and did they sound like they meant it? Did the department store clerk think to
ask whether you needed batteries for your new tape recorder?

Some of it, they say, just makes good business sense, like encouraging restaurant staff to "up-sell" the customer. If you can get customers to order cake with their coffee, it not only boosts the restaurant's sale, but increases the size of the waiter's tip.

That's one of the reasons why two short years after launching their business, Sensors Quality Management has a long list of well-known clients, including the Delta Chelsea Hotel, Arby's restaurants, Sears, the Deerhurst Inn and the Colony Hotel.

Mystery shoppers - as they're called in the industry - aren't new. But they're in growing demand. "Service is the basis of the business," says Pradeep Puri, a controller at a major downtown hotel that uses mystery shoppers. "It costs you more to get a new customer than to keep one. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are still not where they should be."

"It's an important tool to ensure we measure up to the standards we've set," says Gray Sisson, whose company SIR Corp. owns a string of restaurants, including Jack Astors, Walt's Beanery and the Armadillo Texas Grill. You think it's easy being a waiter? Staff at Sisson's restaurants must measure up to a 100-point checklist that includes things like: Was the appetizer served within five minutes? Did the server check on the main course within two minutes of serving it? Did the customer have to ask for the bill?

Not surprisingly, the union that represents many hotel and restaurant workers isn't keen on the concept. After all, would you want a corporate spy looking over your shoulder? "We're totally opposed to them," says Bryan Neath, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers union. For one thing, there may be good reasons the staff can't measure up, he says. "Was the staff cut in half that day? Was the line-up seven miles deep? Did the cashier have time to think let alone greet the customer in a friendly way?

"Why don't companies spend the money they spend on mystery shoppers to train the employees? In most cases, in retail, there's no training whatsoever in customer service," Neath adds. But Lipton and Henry say they're on the workers' side. More training is exactly that they're trying to promote. Their reports aren't supposed to be used to slap anyone's wrists. And they're quick to give credit where it's due. Besides, Lipton and Henry both know what it's like to be on the other side of the cash register. Both have degrees in restaurant and hotel management from Ryerson Polytechnic University, and both worked in the hotel and restaurant business before opening their business.

So they know what's reasonable to expect. And what's not. Sometimes, they'll go to extremes just to see how the staff will react. They've gone into exclusive clothing stores wearing ripped T-shirts and a three-day-old beard to see whether it's the security staff, not the clerk, who approaches them first.

They've insisted on "turn down service" - chocolates on the pillow, drapes drawn, lights dimmed, bedcovers turned down - in hotels that don't normally provide it. Things most of us wouldn't even dream of demanding. In fact, most of us don't complain enough. Do complain, they say. Don't shout or use abusive language. Bear in mind the waiter or store clerk may not have the authority to bend the rules or meet special requests. Ask for the supervisor or manager, and keep climbing the corporate ladder until you're either satisfied or can't go any higher.

For Lipton, mystery shopping is a natural occupation. He's a born consumer advocate, the kind of guy who'll call the company president directly if he doesn't get the kind of service he expects. Sometimes it pays off.

Now, if Sensors can just land that contract with Club Med, checking the service at its world-wide chain or resorts, life would be perfect. "Can't you just see me lying on the beach drinking pina coladas?" Lipton asks with a grin.

Copyright © The Toronto Star, 1995

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