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QSR | Quality and Speed for Restaurant Success Sep 6, 2006

By Quinn Bowman
Spy Tools
Using technology to improve mystery shopping.

When a restaurant operator wants to evaluate their operation, it would be nice to be able to read customers’ minds. Secret shoppers, who are clandestine agents sent to evaluate your business, can provide that insight.

One leading secret shopper organization has combined that service with a technological component. Seventeen-year-old Satisfaction Services, Inc., uses customized internet reporting and e-mail alerts in order to keep its clients updated on their performance evaluations at all hours of the day. A competitor, Tell Us About Us, also offers customized solutions.

"We distribute and track all reporting for our Mystery Shop Program via the web," says Brent Stevenson, vice pesident of client services for Tell Us About Us Inc. "It is managed through our custom made system, the Online Knowledge Management Console (KMC). Within the Online KMC, clients can manage their mystery shop reporting as well as any other feedback/operational program they might have."

Satisfaction Services’s founder, president and CEO Mike Albert oversees a company with tens of thousands of shoppers worldwide and a vast array of industries to cover. Or as Albert puts it, "any industry you can imagine." His shoppers and reporting system provide detailed evaluations to retail stores, various service-industry companies, full-service restaurants, and quick-service restaurants.

Albert says one of the toughest parts of making his business work was developing an effective IT system. Although Satisfaction Services has a full-time IT staff, redundant servers, and a regular maintenance routine, Albert says the biggest concern is in developing and enhancing reporting for clients.

Albert’s system allows his clients to peruse detailed evaluations of their operations within 24 hours of the secret shopper visit via a secure web site. Company managers receive an e-mail that alerts them about the completed evaluation as well.

The entire Satisfaction Services secret shopper process is also multi-faceted and more complex than a simple five-question survey of a single restaurant. "This is not your father’s mystery shopper anymore; there’s a lot of formality and focus in it. We want details from the shopper. Clients are demanding, and they very well should be. The managers, if not staff, have bonus money riding on the evaluation, so we had better give them an accurate one," Albert says.

Satisfaction Services shoppers, who are all part-time, are scattered across the United States and in Guam, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Shoppers are assigned to match the client. "We understand how the client operates and select shoppers that align with the client’s customer profile," Albert says. "The company works with each client to create a custom shopping evaluation."

After the shopper is chosen, trained, and briefed on the client, he/she visits the restaurant for a meal. Most of Satisfaction Services’s quick-service clients want to know the same things: Are the bathrooms clean? Are the doors clean? Is the hot food hot and the cold food cold? Shoppers also look at customer service and wait times.

Because the employees delivering the service think about their work in terms of weeks, weekly evaluations tend to produce higher weekly scores.

After going through the checklist, a shopper puts together a brief report on the experience. Satisfaction Services reviews each evaluation to make sure the reviewer’s answers and summary jive before being sent to the client.

Once the report is uploaded to the Satisfaction Services web site, clients use a password to access the material. Clients can access segmented shopper reports that show ratings for individual stores or for an entire region. Store managers can see their scores, regional managers can see regional scores, and corporate bosses can see the aggregate.

The process is repeated on a monthly basis. The more an organization is evaluated, the easier it is for clients to figure what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong, Albert says. Combine a large data set with the online tools Albert’s company provides and it is clear how the evaluations can provide crucial information to quick-service restaurant managers.

One of the more useful online features Satisfaction Services offers clients is a tool that allows them to look at a particular question and, with a mouse click, find out which specific restaurants are failing in that area.

The data can also be broken down on a year-to-date basis so long-term trends can be seen. Most of his clients, Albert says, use weekly evaluations. This makes for a large amount of evaluations that can be used for trend analysis. "If you have 100 evaluations that you’ve conducted, then the results are pretty accurate," he says.

Furthermore, the weekly setup fits well with the way restaurant employees think about their jobs, Albert says. Because the employees delivering the service think about their work in terms of weeks, weekly evaluations tend to produce higher weekly scores, he says.
Each secret shopper visit costs between $35 and $40. Quick-service or full-service restaurant evaluators are reimbursed for their food purchase and have a spending limit.

But is the money well spent? Albert claims that some past clients, with whom he had a personal relationship, shared sales data with him that indicated a strong correlation between good evaluation scores and high sales. "I can say with confidence that 100 percent of time locations that consistently scored high had sales increases year after year," he says.
One of Albert’s clients agrees. Samir Abou-Diwan, who owns a Wingstop franchise, directly attributes his increased sales and improved customer service to Satisfaction Services evaluations. His buffalo-chicken wing eatery boasts a 20 percent increase in sales in 2006 and nine consecutive perfect Satisfaction Services evaluations.

When Albert first started his company in 1989 it was out of frustration. As a longtime restaurant owner, he had a hard time finding a satisfactory customer-service evaluation service. "I spent most of my life in the restaurant business and used companies that did what we do [now]. I never found a product I could depend on. I told my wife one day that if you did this and did it very well you could be really successful. We took our time and studied the process. We spent the time and money and tools to do it well," he says.

The online operation for Satisfaction Services went into effect in 2000. The process is constantly being retooled, Albert says. "We used to do it all on paper, and I don’t know how we did it."

His professional restaurant management background gave Albert the tools he needed to evaluate what customer services worked and what didn’t, especially where food was being served.

Albert likes to think of the state of customer service in the restaurant industry as a great opportunity, not a shameful black eye. "In all industries, even the high-end ones, the expectation of service at the consumer level is very low. Most people feel that if they can go out and go buy something or eat dinner somewhere and not get abused badly they had a good day. This also presents an opportunity to provide better service,” he says. "A little bit is all it takes to really knock it out of the park."

One of the biggest customer-service problems Albert sees in the quick-service industry is the tendency to sacrifice friendly service for speed, and accuracy at the drive-thru.

"Friendliness of staff is big. A lot of times quick doesn’t equate with friendly. A lot of times quick is overemphasized as opposed to friendly," he says. Part of the problem with quick-service customer service is that the younger generation that typically provides the service needs to be educated about common courtesy, he says.

Albert noticed a big change in the way McDonald’s has changed this dynamic in its workforce. "What I’ve noticed is that their service is still quick but there’s a balance there of courtesy and friendliness in the process. It is dramatic to me because I am a student of it," he says.
The drive-thru issue, on the other hand, is simply a matter of giving customers what they ordered. If that accuracy could be improved, quick-service restaurant efficiency could go up 40 percent, Albert says.

The bottom line, however, is that Satisfaction Services’s clients really want a way to distinguish themselves from the competition, he says. Albert’s company even offers a comparative analysis service that will show a client how the competition is scoring, which can help to motivate staff and management. Albert’s service simply allows clients to evaluate their performance from within and to get a perspective on their progress.

Even though Albert started out evaluating the restaurant industry, he says judging customer service in a Best Buy is not much different from evaluating the Taco Bell drive-thru. "In concept it doesn’t matter what industry it is. The key is to understand the experience that the customer is having using a program to monitor that experience."

Previous Columns: August 2006 July 2006 June 2006 May 2006 April 2006 March 2006 February 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 October 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 June 2005 May 2005 April 2005 March 2005 February 2005 January 2005

This column originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of QSR. Subscribe and get QSR delivered to your door twelve times per year.



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