Pizza Magazine | PMQ Article |The Positive Customer Experience
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"Customer experience is more important today than ever before, ultimately it wins and retains customers" - Mike Albert founder Satisfaction Services - The Mystery Shopping Company

Pizza  Magazine Article on Service PMQ Pizza Marketing Quarterly Article

Mystery Shoppers -

Putting the carrot before the stick - By Jim Dees

With customers buried under Ipods and text messages, the human touch such as common courtesy and civility just ain’t hip anymore. When you’re giving pizzas away, two for five bucks, who has time to smile? Who needs to? Mike Albert, founder of Satisfaction Services, a leading service evaluator company based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, thinks the lost art of courtesy should be re-discovered.

"Most of today’s industry leaders recognize that you can’t compete on price anymore," he points out. "Customer experience is more important today than ever before, ultimately it wins and retains customers." After nearly two decades in the business, Mike’s company now employs thousands of "mystery" shoppers worldwide, who visit and write reports on, some of the most prominent retail, restaurant, hospitality and service companies worldwide. Among his clients include, Etza Pizza of Phoenix, Jerry’s Subs and Pizza, of Washington, D.C. and Belle Ante’s of Fort Lauderdale.

"It’s not a thing it’s an experience," he explains. "Price isn’t an issue anymore because all things are basically competitively-priced. So what else can you offer? Somebody is already in the best locations so you can’t out price them, you can’t out locate them, you have to out service them. Attitude and courtesy go a long way and people are starting to pay attention to that."

Mike says a crowded marketplace with so many options for the consumer can be one reason customer service is so important. After so many years in the food industry, he says there’s another reason good service can break through the market clutter and have an impact on patrons.

"Expectations are so low," he says with a chuckle. "If the customer can go through a process and not get abused too badly, they’ve had a good day. If somebody really goes out of their way to use just a little courtesy it really stands out."

Real Info, Real Time
Satisfaction Services’ clients are almost evenly split, 50-50 among hospitality, restaurant and the retail and service sectors. The company has worked out a highly evolved, technological platform that delivers password protected, real-time reporting that gives stores instant access to weekly, monthly and year-to-date results compiled by location, district, region, franchise, or all locations. The data identifies areas of opportunity in which extra training or communication can mean higher sales, customer retention/loyalty and frequency. As you might expect, Internet and email have revolutionized the service evaluation industry as they have most others.

"Oh, it’s basically reinvented it," Mike says. "I don’t know how we did it years ago. Basically, when we switched over to all paperless about six years ago, we had to develop our own software for our business. We now have a full time tech staff and that’s what they do is keep up with our systems and reporting."

Most mystery shopping services are hired to pinpoint trouble spots with an operation. Mike says his company believes in evaluating what is working.
"If you recognize positive behavior, it will happen with a greater degree of frequency. You can instill this by using a mystery shopping service like ours where the focus is on recognition and reward, using it as a carrot, rather than a stick," Mike says. Mike believes in informing employees management has employed a mystery shopping service, without saying what day to expect it. He further points out the importance of sharing the shop report with employees.

"Clients are encouraged to share evaluation criteria with all employees so that everyone knows the goals and expectations that have been established for service to the customer. Our philosophy of helping companies find and reward people in their organization who are doing things right can help companies establish a top-down culture focused on providing the ultimate customer experience. The program becomes a source of pride for our client corporations."

As Mike points out, any edge the smaller operator can achieve over the competition, should be factored in as a positive on the budget ledger.

"It’s a tool that a client can use to truly understand their customer’s experience down to the tiniest detail. It’s no longer a cost, it’s an investment."

Fresh Set of Eyes
Steve Kahn is a 16-year food biz vet who is currently vice-president of operations for Bellantes, a six-unit pizza chain based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It focuses almost entirely on buffet, (no delivery) with 16 varieties of pizzas, a salad bar, a dessert bar, and a pasta station complete with a sautée man. Customers can watch as he whips up fresh garlic and oil, alfredo and tomato sauce and blends them on site. The buffet, where pepperoni, and cheese pizzas are the one-two sellers, was recently forced to increase from 3.98 to 4.89, due to hurricane-induced insurance increases. (Steve says the increase was a whopping $2,000 a month). Through it all, Steve says mystery shopping services provide an invaluable snapshot of operations and he has employed them many times over the years. He found it especially helpful as a manager charged with overseeing six busy stores.

"I can walk into my restaurant and things can be haywire and in five minutes everything’s fine and everyone is smiling and it will be the perfect cover-up because the boss is back," he says with a knowing laugh. "The mystery shopper can spend 45 minutes to an hour there. Was the salad bar clean? Was it stocked? Was the pizza on the buffet fresh-looking?"

Steve says he realizes people can have a bad night. That’s when he gives his managers the benefit of the doubt.

"Often they (mystery shoppers) come on a busy pizza night when there are supposed to be maybe 16 pies on the buffet and there are only four. If it happens, I send the shoppers back the next weekend when the same manager is on duty to see if it’s a pattern or just a dropped ball. Most of the times it was a busy night and the manager dropped the ball."

Steve finds it an incentive for exemplary staff behavior if they believe a mystery shopper could come in at any moment. "Employees are a little more on defense," he says, “which can be a good thing."

The average price for a mystery shop is between $30-40. At that rate the service is cost effective based on the voluminous information it can give you. Steve says the sheer size of his operations has made a series of shops worth it.

"We have a pizza bar, pasta bar, dessert bar. We set up a point system, were the various bars stocked? Were the restrooms clean? We have six restaurants and I can’t be at every one, this service is only $35, to $38 bucks. It’s really inexpensive, you’re talking about somebody being your eyes."

Unlike other operators, Steve elected to not notify his employees they were being secretly scrutinized.

"At first I didn’t let my managers know, I wanted to surprise them good or bad. We told them it could be once a week or more. It kept them on their toes. At one point with six locations, we were having them once a week. If I get a bad report, I automatically have them go back and re-check. If it was a good report, I’d wait a couple of weeks to re-check."

One Meatball
Like most operators, Steve reports the most re-occurring offense, by far he says, was failure of the cashier to upsell. In Steve’s case, he was running a special offer on meatballs, and the offer was one extra meatball for 99 cents. Steve says he found an incentive to persuade his cashiers to offer the meatballs.

"I offered all cashiers a quarter for every order of meatballs they sold in a month," recalls with a laugh. "It worked! A cashier could make an extra $30 or forty bucks on a six-hour shift. After I stopped doing it, meatball sales dropped."

Know Your Own
The bottom line on mystery shopping seems to be to know exactly what you hope to find out from the reports, and two, set standards that can easily be computed against what the reports tell you. Jack Butorac is president of Marco Pizza, of Toledo, OH, which operates 150 pizzerias throughout the Midwest. Each Marco’s employs 20-22 people, with half of that number being drivers. A carryout and delivery, Marco is the number one pizza chain in northwest Ohio and southern Michigan. Jack has helped build the chain throughout Indiana, Nevada, Arizona, North and South Carolina, Tampa, and Wisconsin.

"We have 50 stores," he says, "with 22 under construction and contracts out on 850." At that staggering rate, Marco is definitely expanding and Jack says mystery shops were useful tools for the company’s early days.

"It’s effective if you utilize the information. You have to know your operating standard. At $50 (on avg.) per shop, the cost is insignificant. You establish operating standards through training. Then we give those training systems to the operational people and they implement it. What we’re really measuring is the outcome of our system."

Jack says the rapid expansion of Marco Pizza has caused him to not employ mystery shopping lately. He says to do it properly you have to have the time and office infrastructure to process all the volumes of data such reports generate. He says he wants to wait until he has the time and resources to properly interpret such data.

"We have done mystery shopping, but to be effective, you have to have operational standards and know how to apply the information the mystery report gives you. I didn’t have the internal system to digest the info and give justice to it to our company stores. I just wasn’t set up to really communicate that information effectively. I want to correct that. We’ve been working on other things the last three years, but I’ve budgeted time for it in the coming year. I see the benefit of mystery shopping. We’ve recently brought in some new hires and once we get them squared a way, I look forward to trying to put together a good shopping program and getting it in place."

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Mike Albert- Founder Satisfaction Services, Inc. Customer Service Feedback Company - Speaks on Customer Service and Hospitality.

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