Five reasons secret shoppers are evil.

The corporation that owned the Dead Animal Steakhouse had a problem. Servers, cooks, and hosts were required to sit down with the general manager of the restaurant once a year for an annual review. The review was intended to focus on what the employee was doing well and what could be improved. The results of these annual reviews were meant to determine who got the best shifts, sections, and other various perks (like free food). The problem the corporation had was two fold. The first problem was the generally ineptitude of the management staff. In my seven years, I had one annual review. The management of the restaurant was overwhelmed with their skirt chasing and general douchebagery to worry about something as trivial as how competent their serving staff was. The second problem concerned the metrics of the annual review. It was all completely subjective and opinion based. There was no hard data, beyond how large a server’s average check was or how quickly the kitchen made a steak to decide who was the “best” and who was the “worst”. When review were actually attempted by the management, the results were predictable. Pretty girls did well. The scores for the rest of the staff depended on the mood of the managers on that day. It goes without saying that many very good servers, cooks, and hosts were not pretty girls.

Rather than fire the awful managers and find better, more professional people to run their restaurants, the corporation added an additional layer of hidden oversight: the secret shopper. The secret shopper quickly became the most feared and hated forms of evaluation that corporate used. The basic premise is simple: servers wait on a table that is secretly evaluating them on their job. The scores and comments the secret shoppers record are then provided, through a third party evaluation company, to the corporate offices. The corporate office used this information to praise or punish (mostly punish) the server and restaurant that was secretly shopped. You never knew who the secret shopper was, when they were visiting the restaurant, or if they were reasonable individuals with reasonable expectations. The corporation fell in love with this type of evaluation and looked at these secret shoppers the same way a teacher would use a pop quiz. For better or worse it was one shopper’s opinion about what the restaurant was doing well and what could be done differently.

Every Thursday the results of the secret shoppers evaluation would be posted in the kitchen. It set the mood in the restaurant for the following weekend. To complicate matters, there was no uniformity to how the management of the restaurant would use these scores. Some weeks people did great and nothing would be said. Other weeks people would be fired for a low score. This fostered an atmosphere of fear and panic if a server thought a guest in their section was a secret shopper.

In my eyes there are five major problems with the secret shopper methodology as practiced by the Dead Animal Steakhouse.

5) Secret Shoppers are cheap and disinterested in anything but a free meal.

Why would someone become a secret shopper? Is it an overwhelming desire to improve the culinary experiences of your fellow patron? Is it a way to help fix a faltering restaurant that has poor service? Alas, no. It’s far more simplistic. Secret shoppers get a free three course meal for their time. Secret shoppers are required to order a drink from a bar, an appetizer, an entree (preferably steaks), and a dessert. This type of meal would typically cost upwards of $70 at the Steakhouse.

Secret shoppers don’t really care about the restaurant they are assessing. All they care about is getting a free meal they may not have been able to afford otherwise. The service of the waitstaff is a secondary concern. This is unconscionable, in my eyes, considering that the server’s job may be on the line if the results of the secret shopper experience isn’t perfect. Servers deserve to be evaluated by people who actually want to evaluate them and not get a free expensive meal. Which brings me to my next point:

4) Secret Shoppers don’t know anything about the restaurant business.

There are very few prerequisites to becoming a secret shopper. The application process is online and consists of contact information and a few demographic questions. There is no interview process or serious attempts to cull the applications down to the most reasonable and insightful people possible. Consequently, most secret shoppers have never been cooks or servers and have no idea what it’s like to work in a restaurant.

There is a wonderful comparison between secret shoppers and education. Every year, millions of school children take high stakes tests to determine what they learned from their teachers. Imagine if we allowed a completely untrained and unqualified random person off the street with an answer key to grade these assessments. The parents of this country would be outraged, rightfully so. This is what the Dead Animal Steakhouse did to its staff every time a secret shopper evaluated their service.

The server is only one part of a complicated process that gets food to the table in an acceptable time frame. Hosts, cooks, managers, runners, bussers, and dishwashers all play a very important role in a well operating restaurant. Secret shoppers have no idea about the nuances of the service industry and only care about their free dinner. I believe that every job should have a set of standards. Standards are good. I don’t have a problem judging or assessing people on those standards (even firing them). However, we owe it to the people who work in restaurant industry to ensure the most qualified people are assessing them.

3) They are judge, jury, and executioner and they usually know it.

Secret shoppers are told to be as honest and “detailed oriented” as possible when evaluating a restaurant. Every little detail matters. They are also told that their comments are given serious weight and consideration. They know that their feedback means a great deal to the company and their opinions matter. Everyone likes to be told their opinion matters. In isolation, this is fine. I have always wanted honest feedback from my tables about how I’m doing. Perception is reality. We can learn a lot from how a guest sees our performance. But allowing these same uninformed opinions to become a referendum on whether a server loses their job is irresponsible. Consider the first few problems with this process I have already mentioned. Secret shoppers are mostly disinterested. They only want a free meal. They have never been servers. They don’t know what it’s like to be triple sat in the middle of a 10 hour shift with no breaks. The weight the Dead Animal Steakhouse placed on secret shopper scores was so extreme, it could ruin the career of a perfectly competent server. Which ties into my next point:

2) Secret shoppers are a sample size of one.

The Dead Animal Steakhouse routinely allowed secret shoppers to be the entire evaluation process for servers. Typically, a secret shopper consisted of one or two guests. This sample size is completely insignificant considering a server might wait on 100 people in one busy day. Would we certify the results of an election with 1% of the vote counted? Would we accept a public opinion poll that only one person took? Would we give up on a student who failed one test? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions. Unfortunately, the Dead Animal Steakhouse used this exact methodology with its servers. In some cases, one bad secret shopper report was enough to get someone fired.

1) The secret shopper assessment is blatantly unfair.

The actual form that secret shoppers were given to evaluate their servers was so simplistic it would never be tolerated in many other professions. As a teacher I would never allow it in my classroom. Allow me to illustrate. The following comments were made about a server, Lizzie, by a secret shopper:

- Greeted us within two minutes, took three minutes to come back with drinks. Very busy.
- Very friendly.
- Great job delivering drinks.
- Fries were cold, returned immediately with fresh hot fries that were much better.
- Very neat and refilled drinks more than once.
- Described the desserts to us. Nice job!
- Very fast delivery of desserts. Always smiling.
- Wonderful dessert
- Very speedy

Here are some comments about the visit in general:

- Everyone was busy but still had smiles on.
- Portions and service were very good.
- Big portions, you never go home hungry.

Having read these comments, out of 100%, what do you think the secret shopper gave the server for the visit?

59%, well below a “passing” grade of 90%.

In this particular case, the appetizer the guest ordered, in their estimation, was cold. The server immediately corrected it. Additionally, they didn’t feel their steak was a good value for the price and was overcooked. They did not mention this concern to the server. They sucker punched her on the evaluation (and admitted so in the comments). The server did everything right. She greeted the table in the appropriate amount of time and returned with their drinks in the prescribed three minute window. She corrected any problems she was told about and was consistently praised in the comments for her service. She did everything by the book.

The server is the public face of the restaurant and took the hit for what is clearly a kitchen problem. The kitchen never bore the responsibility, however, in the eyes of corporate. Lizzie’s name and score was posted in the restaurant for all to see. It was a “motivation” technique used by corporate to encourage better scores. Lizzie’s score is just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen secret shopper reports praise the server but fail the restaurant on rude hosts or poorly prepared food. The server could be 100% perfect (as Lizzie was) and, due to the weight the corporation placed on certain aspects of the evaluation, fail miserable. Servers were regularly embarrassed, scolded, or fired for poor scores. No cook or host, in my seven years, lost their job because of a poor secret shopper score or were held accountable in any way.

Complaint about this process has been made multiple times by servers to the management. The response is always predictable. Management types say “treat every guest like a secret shopper” and it won’t matter. This notion would be true if the evaluation instrument wasn’t horribly broken. It is a simplistic comment made by simplistic people. To even pretend that it is a fair evaluation of a server’s abilities is delusional and disingenuous.

Secret shoppers have no idea the damage they do with their evaluations. To them, it’s a free meal. Servers live in fear of a poor secret shopper score because, to us, it's our livelihood. If you ever feel the urge to become a secret shopper, all I would ask is that you consider the five major flaws in this system I have detailed above. You might save a good server from a bad system.


The CAUTION Group said...

The problem is not with the mystery shoppers as much as with the management of the venue shopped and how they use the report.

Mystery shoppers are a tool and like all tools must be used properly and that means as a part of a larger quality control/customer service program.

Business owners that give too much weight to any single report do a dis-service to their employees and customers as much as those that fail to monitor their operations at all.

As part of a comprehensive program, properly managed mystery shoppers are a valuable resource to managers and owners.

Anonymous said...

When I mystery shop I do so with a strong anticipation of good service. I do not look for faults unless they are thrust in my face and I always ensure I present facts as facts and opinion as opinion. As the other reader said, it is not always the shopper that is at fault; it is how the management decide to view the results. It is also worth considering that mystery shoppers also get a rough ride from mystery shopping companies and end client staff who realise after a visit that they might have dealt with a shopper and to cover their back ring head office to shop us in and claim we were being overtly obvious in our auditing when we were doing no such thing. They merely wanted to discredit our genuine findings. The problems you state really do work both ways. I would say that 95% of my evaluations are overall positive rather than condemning.