Become your own mystery shopper to raise your standards and improve customer service
By Roy Strasburger
Originally Published in Convenience Store News
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, one of my tasks was to keep my room clean and tidy. Every day, I was to pick up my clothes, books and toys and put them in their proper places. I tried. I really tried. Seriously.
Before being allowed out to play on a Saturday morning, my room had to pass inspection. Inevitably, as I stood by the front door, I would be told that I needed to clean my room. “But Mom, my room is clean,” I’d protest. I would then be led back to my room and items that I hadn’t noticed would be pointed out to me. My being in the room on a day-to-day basis had blinded my objectivity and I didn’t see what others saw.
The title of this article is not completely accurate. I think surprise store inspections are important and very helpful. Thanks to the power of the English language, the statement “store inspections should not be a surprise” can have two meanings. What I actually mean is that the result of store inspections should not be a surprise. You must be able to objectively see what your store looks like.
You may not realize it, but your store is inspected multiple times a day. Every customer who walks into your shop is
a mystery shopper grading your store on cleanliness, out-of-stocks, pricing and customer service. Unlike the professional mystery-shopping companies, however, your customers won’t leave you with an inspection report. If you fail any of the categories, the customer will vote with their feet — and their wallet — by going somewhere else.
The eternal question is: How do we keep our store at the stan- dards we expect? It is important whether you own one store or 100 stores. The condition of your site is one of the main drivers of customer loyalty and increased sales. Maintaining a high standard is hard to do. Working in a store every day makes it difficult to see the areas that need to be improved.
The best way to have an objective eye is to imagine yourself as a professional inspector. A professional inspector has a checklist that he or she uses to make sure that every item is checked during a visit. Leaving the inspection to memory causes items, and problems, to be overlooked because they are taken for granted.
We use a checklist called Every Store Every Visit (ESEV). A store inspection is performed at least once a week. The store is graded based on the inspection, and the report is reviewed with the team members running the store. We leave the report in a binder at the store and review it after the next inspection to see what items were fixed and what areas still need to be worked on.
“What a great idea,” you are probably thinking, “but how do I get one of these checklists?”
If you are already having mystery-shop inspections because of your fuel or store brand, ask your brand owner for a copy of the inspection checklist and use it as the basis for your own list. Add to it items that you think are important for the success of your business.
If you don’t currently have a mystery-shopping program, don’t despair. You can make your own checklist.
The next time you visit a competitor’s store, pay attention to what you are seeing. What do you look for? What do you notice? Where are your competitor’s flaws? What do you think they can improve on? What are they doing right?
Next, go to your site. Pretend you are someone from another planet trying to figure out what the building is and what goes on inside. Stand outside the property (but not in traffic!). Start at the curb with your eyes and slowly make a mental movie of the parking lot and the front of the store. Are the trash cans empty and clean? Is there litter in the parking lot? Are the weeds growing up through the cracks or over the curb? Are the fuel dispensers clean and working? Are the lights working? Does the air and water work? Do the building, curbs or canopy need painting or repair?
As you enter the building, check to see if the windows are clean or cracked. Inside, slowly look around. Is the floor clean? Do the lights work? Is there any old food smells? Are customers greeted when they walk in the door and thanked when they leave?
As you walk around the store, notice if the shelves are clean. Is everything priced? Are there any empty spaces on the shelves? Is there trash on the floor?
How about the foodservice? Is the foodservice area clean? Are the cups and supplies stocked? Is the food being kept at the right temperature? Is the food being stored properly? Are the coolers and freezer holding temperature correctly?
How’s the staff? Are they in uniform? Are they attentive to the customers (greeting and thanking them)? Are they working the floor when not waiting on customers? Do they have a name tag on?
And, always fun, how does the bathroom look? Is it clean? Does it have soap, towels and toilet paper? Is the hot water working? Does it smell?
Finally, how about the things the customer doesn’t see? Is the store room tidy? Is the cooler clean and tidy? Are the air filters clean? Is the office space in order? Are the proper cash controls being followed at the point-of- sale? Are all permits and licenses posted?
As you are walking around, list everything you notice on a sheet of paper. I suggest you organize the items into categories such as cleanliness, customer service, products, outside appearance, etc. Another option is to list them in the order you would see them when walking around. In either case, the more detail you add to the list, the better. A good inspection list should take 30 to 45 minutes to complete. This doesn’t include the time it takes to fix the mistakes.
Once you have your checklist completed, add a space at the top for the date and who was on duty. Make a dozen copies of the checklist and put them on a clipboard. Carry the clipboard around and do your first inspection. In addition to feeling very professional (carrying a clipboard will do that to a person), you will be setting the standard for future inspections.
If you are honest with yourself, the first inspection will be terrible. No matter how good we think we are as operators, there is always room for improvement. If you look hard, with an objective view, you will find areas that need improvement. Anytime you find a new issue or problem, add it to your checklist.
The good news is that each inspection will get better if you use them as a training opportunity. Don’t immediately fix the problem yourself, unless there is a safety issue. Walk the store with whomever is on duty, with the checklist in hand. Point out the areas that need improvement, as well as the areas that are done to perfection. Fix any issues as a team so that everyone can learn what is expected and what needs to be done.
After the next inspection, compare the newly com- pleted checklist with the previous one. If the same areas continue having problems, it is a strong indicator that more coaching needs to be done. Go over the list again with the team members on staff. Once they understand there is a written standard they are being held to, they will be more motivated to achieve it.
As a training side note, providing people with defini- tive goals and targets is an excellent way to improve performance. Once someone knows what is expected of them, they find it easier to meet, and exceed, that expectation.
Becoming your own mystery shopper is a quick and inexpensive way to raise your store standards and improve your customer service. It makes your site ready for when the real inspectors — your customers — arrive.
Roy Strasburger is the President of StrasGlobal. For 35 years StrasGlobal has been the choice of global oil brands, distressed assets managers, real estate lenders and private investors seeking a complete, turn-key retail management solution from the most experienced team in the industry.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.