Get your restaurant's data to-go

Editor’s note: David Agius is owner of The Sentry Marketing Group, a Frisco, Texas, consulting firm.

A well-developed mystery shopping program remains one of the most effective and affordable methods of gathering operational data about a business. It doesn’t matter if you own one restaurant, are a franchisor/area developer, local chain or national powerhouse, the data gathered from this market research method can provide support across multiple areas of your enterprise including operations, marketing, customer satisfaction and policy compliance. For franchisors and area developers, including a provision for mystery shopping in the franchise agreement can institutionalize the program and provide a consistent data-gathering tool that can be used by the franchisor and franchisee alike.

With rising energy costs, all businesses are seeking ways to maximize cost and productivity while protecting and expanding market share. Mystery shopping programs can be a low-cost, high-value investment that enables you to collect critical frontline data.

Unspoken promise

Perhaps nothing is more important to a business than its reputation. At every customer touchpoint you have the opportunity to build brand equity and develop customer loyalty. From the neighborhood diner to national chain, every restaurant makes an unspoken promise through its menu, décor and service quality. Consistent execution of quality and service is a non-negotiable component of success and ultimately customers will come to gauge each restaurant’s brand in these areas. For businesses with more than one location it is critical to maintain consistency among multiple stores.

Utilizing a consistent series of anonymous on-site evaluations, data can be collected to detail the actual guest experience versus the expected guest experience based on your guidelines, policies and philosophies. Field evaluators gather objective information areas such as:

•   telephone skills/hostess service;

•   guest experience;

•   food quality and temperature;

•   facility condition;

•   cleanliness of restroom facilities;

•   parking-lot condition;

•   dress code compliance;

•   visibility and interaction of management staff; and

•   compliance with franchise agreement.

Coaching tool

As a brand protection device, your mystery shopping program can function both as a coaching tool and a quality assurance monitor. When the project is specifically designed for your business, you can gain information about how closely policies, guidelines and standards are executed. With a mystery shopping program you can quickly learn:

1. If focus items, such as seasonal or daily specials are being presented to each guest.

2. How skilled frontline employees are at handling guests.

3. Whether the overall operating philosophy is being practiced.

As the data from completed evaluations accumulates, you can use the analysis tools included with most mystery shopping programs to track key performance areas, identify trends and uncover areas of strengths and weaknesses.

For the multiunit operator, in both the franchise and non-franchise environments, mystery shopping provides a consistent method of collecting data that can be used to create comparison and performance reports. These reports can range from comparison of overall evaluation scores to trend analysis and tracking of key performance criteria. Reports commonly track data on a rolling 12-month, month-to-day and/or year-to-date basis.

In a franchise environment, the presence of an established mystery shopping program provides value for the franchisee as well as the franchisor/area developer. When these programs are implemented early in the life cycle of the business, they tend to become an accepted part of the brand culture and a tool that has value for all stakeholders. An established program can be used as a way of differentiating a franchisor from their competitors. From a franchisee perspective, it:

•   offers access to an established program;

•   provides a tool for employee motivation, coaching and recognition;

•   begins data collection from the time a unit is open for business;

•   gives access to best practices from other business units; and

•   sets a baseline to compare unit performance to established indexes.

By including provisions for on-site evaluations in the franchise agreement, you establish the presence of a mystery shopping program from the onset as your way of doing business. The program becomes simply one of the many components that you have in place to help them succeed. Franchisees gain value because they do not have to spend any of their resources developing a similar program. In addition, performance data accumulates from the first day a unit is open for business. For all operators, the result over time is a robust base of performance data that can be used to sharpen staff performance, track progress of training, marketing and similar initiatives as well as quickly identify potential areas for improvement.

Across multiple areas

Your mystery shopping program should be both affordable and provide a high return on investment. A well-executed mystery shopping program will supply you with data that can be used across multiple areas of your business. For example, your program should support your operations department by supplementing the on-site visits of your field staff with the structured operational review provided by the mystery shopping evaluation form. In this role, the program becomes an extra set of eyes and ears for your organization. For the franchise operation the program can provide valuable insight and data to all the members of your team who interface with individual franchisees. The mystery shopping reports can provide early detection of possible process or policy issues as well as identify best practices that can be shared with your management team across all locations.

For those in marketing, your mystery shopping program can provide specific feedback about the presence of marketing materials, if the staff is consistently highlighting the sale of focus items and the condition of menus, menu boards and other signage. The mystery shopping program can also be used to identify and reward star performers. You may find that some of your current food and beverage purveyors may help defray the cost of your program if you highlight their product as part of the monthly shopping scenario.

Mystery shopping programs that are tied to employee incentives can provide a powerful motivator for workers to maintain consistent service levels. Bonuses and rewards can be linked to program results, encouraging employees to embrace operational policies and procedures. The data from the reports can also be a key tool in training and coaching. You can quickly take action on areas requiring improvement and monitor the progress over time with objective data.

Reviewing the purchase receipts submitted as a requirement of your program may assist in accounting compliance as well as discouraging the giving away of items without properly accounting for them.

New life

The Internet has breathed new life into the mystery shopping industry. Field evaluators can complete and upload reports in 24 hours. The almost instantaneous feedback from an on-site operational assessment can alert you to potential problems which can be acted upon immediately. And, over the long-term, the consistent collection of data provides a series of impressions. You can identify trends that can be addressed with training, one-on-one coaching or counseling.

Industry giants like McDonalds, Starbucks and Chipotle have long-standing programs. Both Brinker International (Chili’s/On the Border) and Carlson Restaurants Worldwide (T.G.I. Friday’s) have programs in place, as do regional chains such as Wingstop, IHOP and Sonic.

Program frequency can be adjusted to meet your individual needs but even one visit per month will return future dividends. The information that you gather using this technique cannot be captured using comment cards or similar devices. In fact, the companies referred to in the preceding paragraph use the data from both mystery shopping and customer feedback to drive their decision-making process. The blend of objective reporting (mystery shopping) and subjective feedback (from guests) can be an effective way to keep in touch with both guest expectations and the quality of the guest experience.