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How to hire a mystery shopper

If you're starting a new mystery shopper program or just looking to change providers, here are the questions to run by a shopping service before hiring them. "Make sure that the shoppers you're sending into a client's site meet the demographic of their typical customer," says Rebecca Franks of Perfectly Frank, mystery shopping firm. They should understand the service expectations for different categories of restaurants, too. "If you're not used to five-star restaurants, you're going to be wowed by anything and not notice if the dishes are served from the wrong side."

Who are your shoppers? "Make sure that the shoppers you're sending into a client's site meet the demographic of their typical customer," says Rebecca Franks of Perfectly Frank, a New York City mystery shopping firm. They should understand the service expectations for different categories of restaurants, too. "If you're not used to five-star restaurants, you're going to be wowed by anything and not notice if the dishes are served from the wrong side."

How are they trained? Many shopping firms insist that, as a mark of shoppers' seriousness, they be certified by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. In addition, Judi Hess of Customer Perspectives, a shopping firm in Hookset, New Hampshire, says companies should provide shoppers with detailed written guidelines for each establishment, so results are consistent from one shopper to the next.

What restaurants have you worked for? Mystery shopping for a quick-lube shop typically doesn't involve the level of complexity as working for a restaurant. Ask for a list of the firm's restaurant clients; select a few in your niche and call them for references.

How quickly will I get a report? You should receive the shopper's report within three to five days of his visit.

Is the report customizable? Many mystery shopping providers have developed a standard restaurant report, from which you should be able to add and subtract as many questions as you like. "If I'm using the reports to motivate, retrain or fire employees, the information should be detailed enough to modify their behavior," says Robert Welcher, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Restaurant Consultants.

How do you structure your fees? Most firms will take into account the number of properties to be shopped, the complexity of the report, the frequency of the shops and the length of the contract, then quote a fee on a per-visit basis. In addition, restaurants are typically responsible for reimbursing the cost of the shopper's meal, including tip. Some also charge setup and change fees to cover the costs they incur with new clients.

Will you do a trial run? Ron Santibanez of Qualified Solutions Consulting, in Moreno Valley, California, and a restaurateur himself, suggests setting up a 30-day trial period in which you're shopped three or four times. "Most owners know some of the problems they're having, so if the reports give you a little better insight from the customer's perspective, then mystery shopping is going to be valuable."

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