How hospitality industry businesses can improve mystery shopping programs

The hospitality industry utilizes the services of mystery shoppers perhaps more than any other sector.

The hospitality industry utilizes the services of mystery shoppers perhaps more than any other sector. That makes sense, given the premium placed on customer service and accommodations, but not every organization's program maximizes the effectiveness of these resources.

Successful hotels, restaurants and spas focus on the details that matter. This means streamlining the report structure, maintaining a regular schedule for reporting, research and evaluations and customizing evaluation criteria. In essence, the goal is to minimize the number of variables associated with the process so the benefits are optimized. Achieving such objectives requires buy-in from all levels of the business, a clear and transparent distribution of the information and a commitment to behavior modification. In other words, a program is only successful if the identified shortcomings are addressed and improved upon through a consistent, easily navigable process. 

Some suggested guidelines for businesses in the industry looking to maximize the efficiency of their programs include the following:

  • Standardizing reports. Many industry groups recommend creating checklists, which may seem counterintuitive to the narrative-driven nature of secret-shopping observation. But ensuring that shoppers stay on task and obtain the desired information starts with providing a clear outline for what's expected. There's really no such thing as an outline with too much detail, but checklists are indeed better suited for evaluations that are more specific in nature. For example, limited service franchises - such as extended-stay hotels - may require more black-and-white reporting for which checklists are more appropriate. Regardless, leaving less wiggle room for the shopper means less margin for error, or in this case, decreases the likelihood the fact-finding mission is off-base.
  • Clarifying standards. It may seem an obvious element of any successful business, but it's worth noting for evaluators what the expectations are. That said, mystery shoppers should be reminded that their purpose is to provide insight for both customers and the business - but always from a customer perspective. Whether a program calls for monthly reporting or creates assignments once a week, recurring evaluations will be more effective if they take place at different times and on different days. In that same vein, not using the same evaluator more than once is important. This can be agreed to in writing with a mystery shopping provider association and ensures the report is not skewed by preconceptions or previous interactions.
  • Scoring and disclosing. Achieving the aforementioned behavior modification hinges on maintaining an even keel. A poor evaluation should be treated the same way as a glowing one. The offending staff member, whether they man the front desk or are in charge of entertainment, should be shielded from his or her peers when discussing the findings. The same is true for a staff member whose service was found to be exemplary. Humiliating employees only serves to create division and further depress morale, while disclosing details of the reporting system can compromise its effectiveness. Establishing a consistent review method and stick to it, then, is of paramount importance. That will help ensure each situation is addressed stably and appropriately.

There are some benefits, of course, to publicizing a positive review, if not the names of the responsible employees themselves. Just as mystery shopping communities will have access to negative evaluations, organizations that give equal credence to those identifying flaws will enhance their own credibility. Transparency is a core element of promoting sound customer relationships, and for hotels, restaurants and other service-industry businesses, that means acknowledging negative reviews in equal measure as those touting a given service.