Mystery Shoppers Provide Feedback About the Guest Experience
Do you know if any of the following has happened at your attraction: drug deals occurring in your parking lot, employees engaging in physical altercations with their manager, or employees telling guests how they steal from your business?
Secret shoppers who work for the mystery shopping company IntelliShop have witnessed all of the above, says Ron Welty, founder and chief client officer of the company.
“It falls under ‘when the cat’s away the mice will play’ and points to why large organizations find our work helpful,” says Welty, who adds that IntelliShop detects these kinds of issues and helps companies identify improvements and develop positive recognition programs.
Undercover evaluations, also called “mystery shops,” provide hyper-focused market research and can continually collect data, notes Josh Liebman, director of business development for Amusement Advantage, a mystery shopping company focused specifically on the attractions industry.
“In the short term, our clients can give immediate recognition to staff members who provided outstanding service,” explains Liebman. “Or coach an employee who doesn’t meet the standard expected or when the guest experience is negative.”
Liebman says in the long term, Amusement Advantage shares trends over time and notes what is consistently falling below the trend. Using online tools, attractions can look at granular data points that persistently cause issues or at a specific location for multiunit operators. Liebman says insights from online reviews are different from those gathered through mystery shopping.
“When posted reviews are negative, the damage is already done. We help get the intelligence they need before it damages their reputation and deters future visitors,” he says.
Attractions can tailor the questions on a mystery shopping evaluation to their needs. Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans addresses select key performance indicators (KPIs), says Daine Appleberry, vice president of guest services. Those measured include employee courtesy, entertainment value, cleanliness, conservation messaging, and more.
Eight years ago, Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta embarked on a mystery shopping program. Management valued the objective third-party resource as another tool in its arsenal in addition to guest feedback. With more than 30 million guests since opening in 2005, the attraction feels that it’s important to know how employees and volunteers treat visitors, along with the likelihood of guests recommending the aquarium and if they plan to return.
“We were trying to identify concerns, operational service gaps, or inconsistencies that we didn’t anticipate or see,” says Anthony Rivera, vice president of guest experience and hospitality for the aquarium. “There was no specific problem; we wanted to ensure that a high level of service was being delivered.”
Undercover evaluators at Amusement Advantage pointed out the directional signage at the Georgia Aquarium wasn’t clear. That helped Rivera connect the dots, allowing the aquarium to fine-tune the signage to provide a more enjoyable visitor experience. Evaluations also helped the aquarium management recognize staff members who went above and beyond and reward them.
Keeping the secret shopper process a positive experience for staff members was important for Lagoon Park in Farmington, Utah.
“Shoppers evaluate the employees from the beginning of the guest experience–the auto gate, ticket window, games, merchandise–every point of contact from the start to finish of a guest’s day,” says David Gray, human resources manager at Lagoon Park. “They assess the menu, food offerings, the food itself, cleanliness, and the service employees provide.”
Undercover shoppers are asked to name three additional employees (who are not already mentioned on the report) who went “above and beyond.” Sometimes, those staff members don’t have a point of contact with guests, like landscapers and park service attendants. “It’s fun to get this feedback,” he says.
Employees caught doing good are recognized at Lagoon Park with a certificate and a $15 voucher for merchandise. Those who received a perfect score during the 2019 season were given a button to attach to their lanyard.
The Audubon Nature Institute has three guest-facing facilities: Audubon Zoo, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, all housed in different locations throughout New Orleans. With 900 employees spread over three venues, uniform behavior by staff is important.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see the consistency in employee courtesy across all three locations,” says Appleberry about the mystery shoppers’ discoveries. “It’s a true testament to our leadership team and focus on providing our employees with a great work environment.”
Appleberry believes there are benefits to be gained through using a mystery shopping company. “The value of mystery shopping is unmatched. You literally have the ability to see your facilities through the lens of your guests and receive their unbiased feedback based on their experience,” he says, adding mystery shopping, if used correctly, can assist owners in making tough operational decisions.
Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma, Washington, who frequently writes about small-business issues.