Secret Shopping is a Losing Strategy

If you are one of the millions of people who dine at a corporately owned restaurant each year, you may be surprised to find that servers will soon be replaced by robots. In an effort to appease shareholders, top floor suits — who have likely never worked a day on the floor of a dining establishment — are meticulously crafting monotonous scripts for servers to recite at their tables to help ensure the upsell of every last piece of bacon and avocado. With little to no data suggesting that the pennies earned on each of these micro-managed interactions guarantee a more profitable return than the repeat business generated by genuine, old-fashioned customer service, the executives have gone all-in.

This is how it looks: You return to your favorite restaurant to find that your favorite server Brad has been reprogrammed to regurgitate a nauseating list of pleasantries and food options of which, as a patron, you are already fully aware. You wonder, “Does Brad remember me? I have been requesting his section for months now. Why is he behaving like he has never met me before?”

“Welcome to _________ . I will be your server, Brad. Have you ever dined with us before? Then welcome back! Can I offer you a mojito or a Kim Crawford or a locally crafted IPA? Would you like a bottled water while you wait?”

“Brad, you know I drink Budweiser from a bottle. Why are you doing this?”

“Budweiser it is sir. Can I offer you a frosty glass? And by the way, do you have any allergies?”

What a shame. The charismatic, genuine and charming Brad that was once so truly engaging has been replaced by an answering machine. The script that was once a flexible guide for Brad to self-navigate is now a stone-etched creed. The autonomy that Brad once enjoyed as a sales agent has been shortsightedly revoked by big brother and replaced by the sketchy oversite of unqualified outsiders — secret shopping spies and professional tattle-tells with little or no experience working in the industry that they have infiltrated, paid meager wages to collect short-sampled data, all in the name of a free meal.

Brad, a natural-born conversationalist, multitasker and ten-year veteran server has been shamed into submission by biased undercover agents. Reports filed by these minimum wage earners gave Brad a less than favorable evaluation when he was having an unusually busy day. Another server had called out and the restaurant was short staffed, but Brad took the fall and now he is scared to be himself. He walks onto the floor of the store not thinking about good customer service but wondering who is out to get him. This once relaxed and joyful employee is now paranoid and can feel corporate’s stare like the Eye of Sauron. Any trust that Brad had for his higher-ups is beginning to be replaced by fear and distrust.

Though secret shopping is an old industry, there is not a lot of research to support its efficacy. It is an expensive investment with little evidence of a return on that investment and no clear way to calculate it, especially when you consider alternative options, such as social media and customer reviews, that are free and arguably more valuable.

But the main reason that secret shopping is counterproductive is that it creates distrust among the employees. The entire basis of the exercise is based on a lie. A person employed by your company gains your trust through a false premise, bringing with them their own preferences, looking for mistakes in an industry that they have no work experience and therefore no way of properly analyzing relative situations and behaviors — They have a built-in negativity bias.

Consequently, employees feel misrepresented in their reviews and often question the qualifications, credibility and intentions of the shoppers. Shoppers vary so much from person to person that there is no way of knowing if they fit the target demographic or if they have outright biases towards certain types of people. This makes the employees uneasy. Therefore, what the guest gets, instead of a confident sales person, is a stuttering, broken record of a man, pouring over his every word to ensure that nothing is forgotten. Is that what we want out of our servers? Does that really seem appealing to the guys on the top floor?

Covid 19 put a lot of stress on the restaurant industry and it is understandable that corporations are instituting policies and procedures to help recoup some of their losses. It is just not evident that secret shopping is doing anything more than wasting more of the company’s money for unreliable data and alienating employees in the process — Remember that employees also suffered from Covid 19. Many are still desperate to keep their jobs and the added stress of secret shopping is just one more straw on the camel’s back.

The recession has also driven many people to pick up side-jobs in order to make ends meet and secret shopping is one of them. Though I would never consider such a job, (At a young age, I was discouraged from snitching by older boys in school), I understand how desperate people are in these times. I just hope that these people realize that they are not the only ones who suffered during the Covid 19 pandemic and they might consider having an open mind to their dining experience considering that the industry was completely shut down for 6 months and some inevitable rust accumulated on the gears.

Restaurants are short staffed as many fled the industry in fear of financial ruin. Employees had to adopt entirely new professional protocol to meet individual state mandated standards. Employees are still concerned that their jobs are in jeopardy. Let’s not make things even harder on them by taking away one of the most important things they have left — their dignity.

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