Owning a restaurant can be a labor of love, and much like any loving relationship, it takes a lot of upkeep to make it last. While you may spend plenty of time balancing the books in the office or working around the front of house, it can be hard to tell how the business operates when you’re not around. Sure, you can check your receipts and online reviews to get a general sense of how things are running, but how can you get a more thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your restaurant? One solution is using mystery shopping services.

What is mystery shopping?

When you hire a mystery shopper, you are effectively hiring another set of eyes and ears to covertly assess everything about your business. These professionals will enter your restaurant posing as guests, enjoy a full meal as a normal customer would, use your facilities and leave. If the mystery shoppers have done their job well, odds are your staff will never know they were anything other than regular patrons looking for a bite to eat.

From this visit will come a report that comprehensively sums up the diner’s experience at your restaurant. Everything from the time they spent waiting for their table to their experience using the automatic hand dryers in the restroom will be thoroughly detailed in the report. There will be accounts of the food, service, ambience — all from an objective third party enjoying the real customer experience. This is the kind of feedback you will need to make your restaurant everything it needs to be.

How can I use this information?

The most important component of receiving feedback is how you implement it. Speaking to Inc., Whitney Wood, a managing partner of consulting firm The Phelon Group, suggested that businesses break down customer feedback into easily understood and actionable data points referred to as “strategic horizons.” These distinctions turn the raw information from your mystery shopper report into easily digested factoids based on the kinds of actions they require. These distinctions are:

  • Immediate tactical adjustments: These are simpler issues to deal with that won’t require much effort on your part. This can include things like lowering the volume of the ambient music in the dining room or changing out the scented soaps in the restrooms.
  • Revenue interlocks: Feedback that suggests a more nuanced – and potentially costly – response carries this distinction. Changes that fall in this category may be more incremental in nature, and could take longer to yield results. This can include things like buying new equipment for the kitchen to improve prep times or installing new signage around the restaurant.
  • Game-changing ideas: Fundamental shifts in the way you approach your business are among the most expensive and risky to implement. This can include sweeping changes to your menu, construction projects to expand the seating in your bar area or marketing campaigns outside of your current operation.

Once you’ve looked through this information and formed the data into action points, you’ll want to consider your financial state and consider what changes are realistic. Can you afford to undertake sweeping changes to your restaurant or should you go for more measured adjustments to your business model in order to net some quick wins?

How do you know what changes to make?

Disseminating the feedback from a mystery shopping report into actionable points allows you to address concerns from your customer base, but that doesn’t mean you should make every change mentioned in your report. Martina Welke, CEO and co-founder of gamification firm Zealyst, believes that defining what feedback is truly “actionable” is essential for any business owner.

“Before we build anything, we always ask what value it would really create in the overall experience,” she told The Next Web. “This has also helped us find ways to monetize our business because identifying the true customer value illuminated opportunities to charge for our service.”

As such, be sure to perform a cost-benefit analysis for any endeavor you may hope to enact. Profit margins can grow quite thin in the restaurant business, so it’s always important for owners to keep an eye on their bottom lines when attempting to improve customers’ experience.