Above the Trees

A Sneak Peak

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As an employer, it would be great, every once in a while, to be a fly on the wall.

A sneak peak at employees could reveal how they interact with potential clients and wheth­er they are living up to the standards they agreed to when hired.

But getting such an intimate view is difficult without resorting to ethically questionable bugging devices or secret video.

This is where Tiffany Gleason’s company, Mystery Shop­pers, comes in. For 10 years, the company has been that fly on the wall, giving employers a view of their operations from the perspective of diners, shoppers, drivers and, in some cases, patients.

The “mystery shop”—what these secret shoppers do—is the customer-service-oriented outgrowth of in­teg­rity audits performed by private in­vestigators looking at cash handling for banks and casinos.

“Mystery shopping gives that unbiased opinion of what you’re doing from an outside perspective,” says Gleason, who founded the Knoxville, Tenn., company in 1994 with her sister and mother. “A lot of employees don’t realize that what they do affects whether a business survives.” After all, Gleason says, “Customers want a bar­gain, but service is just as important. Service is what brings people back.”


Most consumers have experienced bad service: rude receptionists, slow service, inattentive checkers or customer service representatives unwilling to apologize for negative experiences. Gleason says she still is amazed by the poor attitude of some employees and how a single person can drag down sales.

Gleason likes to point to her father’s car service franchise as an example of how mystery shopping can work to solve a problem. The franchises were all doing pretty well, but about five years ago one store experienced a sudden drop in sales. “We couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Gleason says. One of her mystery shoppers found the answer. A greeter at the lagging franchise had been sending potential customers away, scaring them off with warnings of long waits, tales of computer problems and advice about cheaper service elsewhere.

Secret shopping helped bring about a quick resolution to that problem. But Gleason and others in the mystery shop business say their covert assessments of customer service can be used just as often to reward good behavior with companies that are already doing well.

Indeed, that’s the attitude Mark Green says he likes to see in the businesses that hire his company, Speedmark.

The goal of his company, he says, is to let business owners know whether they are missing opportunities to improve their business.

Major clients for Speedmark, based in The Wood­lands, Texas, near Houston, include restaurants that look to mystery shoppers to assess whether waiters are aggressively promoting appetizers and desserts, and apartment complexes that want to see whether their managers are wrongly using race as a factor in screening renters.

The service “never, ever should be used as a negative tool to fire any­body,” says Green, who is also president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Instead, he encourages companies to use mystery shops as an opportunity to create contests between stores or em­ploy­ees and boost morale by offering more money or days off when goals are met or exceeded.

One company, which asked not to be identified, recently changed its mystery shopping service at its national chain of gas stations and convenience stores to reward employ­ees on the spot. If the mystery shoppers tally a perfect score, the shopper will approach the store’s manager with a report and the manager will reward employees with gift cards.

Green says the biggest misconception of mystery shop­pers is that they are like Big Brother watching over an employee’s every move. He likes to put a more positive spin on the idea. “If you reward the stars, everybody wants to be a star,” he says. “They’re giving you the answers to the test. If you still fail, you almost have to want to fail. If they catch you, that’s your own fault.”

Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.

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