REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Holly Zoba used to avoid the phone like the plague when her hotel was being mystery shopped.
As property GM, she was terrified her customer engagement skills would score less than perfect if she happened to randomly answer a call from a carefully disguised mystery shopper. But the more she resisted, the more she saw the scores for the rest of her team suffer.
“As the GM, you have to practice what you preach. If you’re recorded, you need to do a perfect job,” said Zoba, who now serves as senior VP of hospitality sales at Signature Worldwide, which provides training and mystery shopping services for hoteliers, among other industry professionals.
Signature is not alone in those pursuits. The Mystery Shopping Providers Association counts more than 300 member companies throughout the globe, not to mention others that aren’t part of the organization.
Their aim is simple: Send agents disguised as guests to interact with hotel associates and/or stay at hotels to measure performance in an attempt to drive change.
But while the practice has been around for decades, it’s attracted renewed focus from hoteliers in recent months as operators begin to spend money on training and development, according to the sources interviewed for this report.
Wyndham Hotel Group first latched onto the evaluation tool when it purchased the Microtel Inn & Suites and Hawthorn Suites brands from Hyatt Hotels Corporation in late 2008. Both brands had long engaged in mystery shopping—and with great results. Microtel, for example, has been named the top budget brand in guest satisfaction by J.D. Power & Associates for nearly a decade.
Wyndham executives evaluated the program and thought it had some merit. They rolled it out to the company’s other brands, excluding Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, which the company benchmarks through tougher internal measurements, according to Dino Pallotta, VP of new openings and quality assurance.
Mystery shopping has proved an essential part of the company’s culture since then, complementing Wyndham’s existing guest surveys and other quality assurance initiatives, he said.
Pallotta cited mystery shopping’s ability to measure the entire guest experience—from reservations to check-out and everything in between—as one of its greatest benefits.
What’s more, the process is objective throughout each of those phases, he said. Whereas a customer leaving an online review might score an entire hotel stay poorly because the check-in process was too long, for example, a trained mystery shopper measures each component of the guest experience in a vacuum.
Furthermore, the results are incredibly detailed, highlighting interactions and experiences by the time, day and associate so franchisees can address problems immediately and accurately, Pallotta said.
Taking the mystery out of mystery shopping
Identifying “legendary” guest service isn’t rocket science, Zoba said. Often it’s simply about doing a lot of little things right.
When a potential guest calls to inquire about amenities, for example, hotel associates should be friendly, speak slowly and clearly, and ask a lot of questions to determine the needs and wants of each particular guest.
“We train our (the hotel staff) to ask a lot of questions,” she said. “You should never assume.”
Still, there are certain keys hoteliers should remember to get the most out of the experience.
First, they should approach the process with clear goals in mind, according to David McAleese, CEO of A Closer Look, which conducts mystery shopping on behalf of Hilton Worldwide and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, among others.
“The approach should be a partnership,” he said. The most successful clients are those who ask a lot of questions and outline specifically which areas of the guest experience they want to improve.
“One of the questions we’re encouraging our clients to ask is, ‘During your visit was there anything or anyone that stood out specific to your experience?’” McAleese said. “That can be something as simple as a roomservice attendant opening or closing the blinds for a guest who saw extreme light coming into a room to a valet pulling out an umbrella and walking someone to their car that didn’t valet park or to offer some complimentary food or drink item after an obvious long day.”
The major chains typically offer a reliable, consistent experience, he said, so finding those extraordinary points of differentiation can be the difference between a one-time guest and lifelong brand advocate.
“For me to want to go back to that hotel, I need to be wowed. To me it’s the little things, and most of them are connected to people delivering on unexpected service,” McAleese said.
Hoteliers also should approach the process with an air of optimism, Zoba said.
“I think some people go into it thinking it’s a ‘Gotcha!’… When people take that approach to mystery shopping, it inevitably fails,” she said.
Hoteliers should instead incentivize their employees to practice great guest service.
“When it’s posed as a positive reinforcement, then people are much more inclined to want to do better,” Zoba said.
When the shoppers get shopped
To that end, employees should know they’re being shopped. It should not be a secret, Zoba said.
“You’re trying to change behavior, so you want them to know. … They should suspect that every call is a mystery shop, so they should be on their best behavior,” she said.
Likewise, they should suspect that every call might be a competitor doing the mystery shopping. Unfortunately, there’s no way to train associates to discern a competitor’s mystery shopper from a normal guest, Pallotta said.
“It’s pretty difficult to identify who the shopper is,” he said, adding the better approach is to have associates assume they’re being shopped by all parties at all times.
And after the mystery shopping process concludes, results should be transparent and shared so associates can learn from their own actions and those of their peers, Zoba said.
Those results also should be viewed within the context of wider quality assurance initiatives, Pallotta reiterated.
“It has been a very good program for us to help us identify our strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “The most important thing here is you can’t use it as a standalone. You’ve got to use it as a complement to whatever other measurements you have. “