They're everywhere: an army of rude clerks, waiters and sales staff who seem indifferent to just how irritating they can be. But as America's business climate becomes increasingly competitive, growing numbers of employers are realizing they can't afford to alienate even a fraction of their customers with poor service.
The need for businesses to know how the staff really treats customers when the boss is out of earshot has given rise to more than 500 mystery-shopping firms nationwide--double the number of just five years ago, according to Mark Michelson, owner of Michelson & Associates Inc., an Atlanta market research firm. Usually started on a shoestring by people who understand what the public wants, mystery-shopping firms hire subcontractors to go undercover and make a purchase, eat at a restaurant, visit a movie theater or apply for a loan, then complete a report about the experience.
"Businesses know many customers don't complain directly to them about bad service. Instead, they tell friends and relatives or just stop going to the store," says Bruce Van Kleeck, vice president of member services at the National Retail Federation. "Mystery shopping is one of the best ways to see if employees are doing their jobs."
Many mystery-shopping firms go beyond providing clients with reports. Vickie Henry, CEO of Feedback Plus Inc. in Dallas, also provides one-on-one consulting and conducts a national workshop for managers called "Would You Do Business With You?" Other firms train their subcontractors to do product demonstrations, evaluate displays and solicit customers to apply for store credit cards.