Why Your Mystery Shopper Program Isn't Getting the Job Done

After college, like thousands of other young adults who are not quite sure what they want to do with their lives, I moved back to Boston and decided to become a waiter.

Waiting tables was an incredibly valuable experience for me. It was a fun job -- fast paced, humbling at times, and highly social. I learned a great deal about human nature, about salesmanship, and about the power of suggestion. And, being a full time waiter helped me develop interpersonal skills that have translated well throughout my career.

At the time, I worked at a Boston restaurant institution, Legal Seafoods and they had a mystery shopper program that they lived by. In fact, we spent hours at our pre-meals discussing the value of knowing the answers to the specific questions a mystery shopper was bound to ask. We were trained to keep an eye out for any sign of a mystery shopper's presence. And we were instructed to alert a manager immediately if you had even the slightest inkling that the couple in your section was probing for information in a way that seemed odd, asking questions as if they were trying to check something off a list as opposed to simply ordering a nice piece of fish.

The scores themselves were weighted very heavily by our managers and I can only imagine what kind of incentives they received for good scores or the reprimands they received for the bad. A server receiving a low secret shopper score was to be written up. And so the entire staff was always vigilant about the potential for a secret shopper lurking at one of our tables.

At about seven months in, when a couple came in for an early dinner and began to ask me questions about the clam chowder, about what gluten free options we had, about where our fish came from, whether it was frozen and how we sourced it, it dawned on me that this was my moment. I was being secret shopped.

I let my GM in the back office know that I was pretty confident a shopper was in my section and I worked extra hard to make sure their experience was a great one. My GM stopped by their table and checked in multiple times, I paid them greater attention than I normally would and they were given the best service we had to offer. Truth be told, I was an attentive server anyway. But the fact remained that I knew this was probably a secret shopper so I went the extra mile. About three weeks later the review came back. I had received a 98 out of 100, the highest score my restaurant had ever received. I was lauded for my efforts and began getting the best sections on the busiest nights. Life was good.

 But what had really happened here was not unique to my mystery shopper experience. And that was the problem. I knew very quickly that the person asking all of those out-of-the-ordinary-questions was looking for more information than a normal diner ever would.

Since co-founding Tattle, I have met with hundreds of restaurant owners and operators throughout NYC many of whom seem to have their own stories that echo my experience back in Boston. And I have learned that many places invest large sums of money into mystery shopper programs without much benefit. But why?

There is wide agreement: it is very hard to get REAL information from a mystery shopper program. The relationship between the shopper who has an agenda to complete a specific set of questions, and the staff, who is often aware of what is going on, is totally artificial. It is merely a simulation (albeit high-level) of the REAL relationship that exists between your loyal customers who are the lifeblood of your business and the staff who interacts with them on a regular basis.

In addition, it can take weeks or even months to process the feedback and get it back in the hands of operators who then use it for training purposes and to resolve issues as they arise. These programs are not cheap, and many merchants only pay for one mystery shopper per month, so information already skewed by the fraudulent interaction is limited in the scope and depth of the data it provides.

At Tattle, we see every customer as a potential secret shopper and ask: What if all of your customers could give you the real time feedback you and your business so desperately need? What if this information could be delivered digitally and in real-time? And what if you could incentivize your customers to not only share their opinions, but return to your restaurant again and again?

With a platform like Tattle, you can empower managers to use real-time feedback to set goals, train staff, and deal with issues as they arise to retain your loyal customer base. The ability to collect, harness and learn from authentic and ongoing feedback adds up to an improvement in the customer experience, an increase in retention, and higher revenue. Tattle’s customers have shown an increase of 40% in retention and 20% in revenue quarter-over-quarter. How does your secret shopper program compare?