How Secret Shopping Can Save Your Business – SPA+CLINIC article Dec 2016

She’s been a secret shopper and she’s been secret-shopped, and on both sides of the process spa industry veteran Naomi Gregory sees extraordinary value.

The importance of evaluating a business’s strengths and weaknesses through the experience of an everyday guest hit home for Naomi around 15 years ago, shortly before she started as manager of an aesthetics clinic. This eventually led to her establishing Catch Praise, to take the guess work out of measuring guest satisfaction, helping businesses to fine tune their services and the way they deliver them so that customers turn into their best sales people. The recent relaunch of Catch Praise represents years of collective hospitality experience in the luxury spa, hotel and resort market. Available online by subscription, Catch Praise provides measured and automated secret shopper and guest satisfaction surveying tools for spa’s and salons. We asked Naomi to talk about her passion for collecting guest feedback and why she considers the data to be her secret weapon:  

How it all began

Recognising how difficult it is for us to take a truly objective customer view of our business when we are entrenched in the day-to-day operation, I decided to evaluate my new business’s performance from an “anonymous guest” perspective before starting the role. I picked a day when I knew the manager wouldn’t be there, booked an appointment under a fictitious name and off I went. The investigative experience was less than ideal but absolutely invaluable. I deliberately arrived early to an unsuspecting team of therapists and receptionists casually leaning on the counters and retail displays absorbed in a conversation about the weekend. Big smiles were flashed as I was seated, and then the conversation resumed as if I wasn’t there except now in hushed but still audible tones. My resolve to prioritise service standards was continuously strengthened as I moved through my treatment experience, with one memorable moment being my therapist telling me “how lucky I was to be able to afford it here”. Needless to say I departed my secret shopping experience with an incredibly detailed “to do” list before starting the job. This secret shopping experience enabled me to hit the ground running in terms of prioritising improvements around service standards and the guest journey, boosting return-visit custom, streamlining the operation and ultimately improving the property’s financial performance. Keen to track my performance and determined to ensure the improvements made were consistent and ongoing, I prioritised the implementation of a regular secret shopping program. I researched professional secret shopping services to find that not only were they outside my budget, but there was not one specialising in spa services. I was committed to ensuring the performance gaps I’d identified through my secret shopping experience never happened again on my watch. I needed a cost-effective way to track and benchmark service delivery from a guest perspective so I did what so many have done before me; I created my own and never looked back. I remain a firm believer that utilising a quality secret shopping program in our business reveals the true value of a well-executed guest service journey. With guest spend decisions driven by the emotional reaction to the spa experience, when handled well, secret shopping helps improve sales, average spend, rebooking, repeat business, retail sales and general loyalty. From an HR perspective, secret shopping provides a framework to develop staff training, reward and recognition programs, reinforce performance expectations and team work, and drive motivation and satisfaction levels. It aids in uncovering gaps in the service experience, facility presentation and technical skills, providing a clear view of what property managers and owners should spend their time and energies addressing. As much as it is useful for identifying areas of improvement, I also found secret shopping became one of my most valuable tools to highlight star performance which was great for team morale and motivation levels.  

Refining the offering

Discovering the aspects guests really value can be a surprising revelation. Business operators I have worked with are frequently surprised that, while a team may be 100 percent compliant delivering defined service protocols, it may not necessarily have materially impacted the guest’s sense of welcome, happiness and content. One way to find out if your processes are truly guest-centric is to frame questions in your customer feedback or secret shopping forms so that the responses give you a clear indication of how important the particular process, procedure or behavior is to your guests and how it positively (or negatively) impacts their overall experience. In other words, a clearly mapped out journey and set of procedures that you think is pleasing your guests, may actually be frustrating them.  

Assess the whole journey, not just the technical element

Often a majority of our training investment – both money and time – is focused on technical training and we overlook the value of all the critical elements that make up the complete guest journey. The major problem with this is that the reason a customer returns to your business is not only based on the technical attributes of the service they experienced. Guests become fierce followers of your brand because of a series of touch points they experience with you, but we so often overlook the value of finding out if our guests enjoy all the elements of their time with us from reservation right through to departure.

Measure how cumulative behaviours make your guest feel

Ultimately, we are in the feeling business but often we don’t effectively measure how our guests feel. Of course we’ll generally ask at the conclusion of a guest’s service how the service was and sometimes how they are feeling, but we don’t really know how they experienced the various aspects throughout the entire “journey”. It is for this reason that I suggest that when you are asking customer feedback questions you ask not only objective questions like “was the phone answered in three rings” you also ask subjective questions like “how did you feel at the conclusion of your phone call to reserve your appointment?’ This example helps to measure the level of satisfaction and emotions that correlate to specific employee behaviors.

The Expert Myth

„Some of the greatest insights I’ve had over the years have been from people in my social circle or work community when I’ve asked them to be a secret shopper for me.”
Having an expert assess your business can be extremely beneficial. However, due to the cost, it’s unlikely you will be able to do them frequently enough to get a good cross section of feedback and sufficient volume of data to track what is happening consistently over time. Newcomers to your business (or new to a spa or salon) have great insight too. We all want to attract first time guests so that we can turn them into loyal customers, so getting real first timer feedback is very valuable. New spa or salon goers as secret shoppers will be especially helpful in establishing if your guest journey is adequately informative, welcoming and dispels any confusion or fear. Using questions such as the leading growth indicator Net Promoter Score (NPS) “Using a 0-10 scale: How likely is it that you would recommend a friend or colleague?”, will help you determine whether your first timer or indeed anyone visiting your business will help to either promote, or not promote, your brand which of course is directly linked to satisfaction.

What to do with the feedback

A secret shopping program can also really aid as a great team-training tool. It provides data that you can use immediately for coaching and gives you a solid framework for longterm performance management. Importantly, it takes the guesswork out of evaluating team performance because you are able to combine your own observations with accurately measured feedback from your guests. When a secret shopper program is used solely to “catch” poor performance or mistakes, it can do more harm than good. Rather than showcasing and reinforcing the type of stellar service you’d like to see more of, this approach creates a threatening and limiting environment for your team. Additionally, it’s unlikely you will be able to use the program to improve your standards and, consequently, guest satisfaction. While obviously you will want to address any poor performance issues immediately, the best team performance results will come when you focus on acknowledging and rewarding the positives. This is the key to having your team embrace the program, and in doing so, consistently strive to deliver exceptional service. The feedback from a good secret shopping program can do more than measure performance levels – it can also reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your team members. This means that you can tailor your training and coaching to respond to individual needs and save yourself time and money on unnecessary training. Secret shopper feedback can also highlight any operational procedures that may detract from the guest experience. Standard procedures are generally created from the operator’s perspective or to address a business requirement. This doesn’t always transfer to a guest-friendly outcome. If you can pin­ point what procedures aren’t working for your guests and why, you can often find alternatives that will give you the same business results and improve the guest experience.

Creating consistency

Your secret shopper program shouldn’t end when you get a few great feedback reports. Secret shopping is ultimately a tool to help you continuously improve and maintain service levels and reward the team. In order to do this, you need to consistently and regularly measure the guest experience. Your team will be encouraged to continually improve when they know you are committed to consistently measuring, rewarding and coaching their performance. The ideal outcome is consistently high shopper satisfaction scores. When you have the right program, are accurately and consistently measuring feedback and addressing performance and operational issues with both short and long term strategies, then feedback results should continually improve. This improvement should transfer to a more focused team, smoother operational procedures, less fires to put out, more satisfied guests and improved revenue.

Top tips for successful secret shopping

  • Ask the right questions and don’t ask too many
  • Measure how guests feel, along with general compliance questions
  • Structure your program so that you can determine what is important to your guests, therefore refining the operational standards
  • Implement experienced and inexperienced secret shoppers: both provide valuable insights
  • Get your team on board by linking results with rewards, reinforcing great performance and providing recognition across all job roles
  • Do it consistently. Every successful business doesn’t have a finish line when you are aspiring for excellence
  Published in SPA+CLINIC Article

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