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Every shop should strive to understand the business image and service quality they’re providing to customers. After all, business perception and customer service are two foundational pieces of generating more sales, says Elaine Buxton, president of Confero Inc., a customer services research company.

But it can be difficult for shop operators to assess their organization from an outsider’s perspective—especially for owners intimately involved in daily operations, Buxton says. Many rely on customer satisfaction surveys to assess performance, but those surveys don’t always tell the entire story and may not reveal the specific happenings that resulted in either great or terrible experiences. Without those details, it’s tough to identify strategies to improve.

The best way to gauge customer service performance is to augment survey research with in-person visits to the shop.

“Mystery shopping” is a process in which shop operators hire a person to call and enter their facility, posing as a real customer without the staff’s knowledge. The purpose is to create a real-world customer scenario to generate detailed, unbiased feedback regarding your staff’s interaction and communication throughout the repair process. It’s an ideal tool to identify whether your customer-facing employees are consistently meeting your service standards, or if there are areas that require additional coaching and training to improve.

“It helps you pinpoint anything that is deficient in your operation, and provides opportunity to dissect what you’re missing if you perform poorly in a certain area,” says Buxton, whose company offers mystery shopping services to repair shops and other businesses nationwide. “Mystery shopping is a way to get a picture of what your company looks like to customers.”

Implementing the Program

Buxton says mystery shoppers assess virtually every aspect of your shop that impacts the customer experience. A few key components include: Facility appearance and cleanliness, telephone communications, follow-up procedures, presentation of repair information, customer education, and sales and upselling skills.

“It’s much more than a ‘yes or no’ analysis,” Buxton says. “There are deep details included that help shop owners clearly understand their performance.”

But obtaining value from the mystery-shopping process requires more than just hiring someone to make observations. It requires a plan and assessment process to  make the effort worthwhile. Here’s a step-by-step process for doing it right:

1. Outline the ideal customer experience. The first step is to highlight what you expect the customer’s journey to look like all the way through the repair process. Analyze the ideal customer experience, and the standard criteria of service you expect.

To do that, outline each of your customer-oriented processes. Think about the way your staff should answer and talk on the phone, send emails, schedule appointments, promote service offerings, educate customers, proactively communicate, and follow-up with customers. Write each of those processes out as detailed as possible.

For example, don’t simply say, “We’re going to communicate properly.” Explain exactly what that means. What tactic will be used for various types of communication? Will customers receive an email or phone call within a certain number of days? Will you always answer the phone within a certain number of rings? Will all phone calls be returned within a certain timeframe?

This process gives shop owners a specific list of items that should be done 100 percent of the time to deliver exceptional service. The document can be used as a training tool to help new employees understand expectations, and sets the benchmark of customer service required at your facility.

2. Create the mystery shopper assessment. Outlining the ideal customer experience sets the standard level of service that the mystery shopper will use to assess your business. Spend time devising a questionnaire, or the key aspects of the shop you want the mystery shopper to analyze, based on that document. It creates a checklist of items they will specifically look for and report on following the visit.

3. Choose the right shopper. The mystery shopper you hire should be capable of offering a thorough report on their observations, Buxton says. Shops should find a consumer who has basic knowledge of the auto repair process, needs a vehicle repair, and fits the geographic target market of the shop.

It’s not always easy to find a shopper who fits the criteria, Buxton says, and shops should avoid hiring a friend or family member because they don’t always have the ability to offer quality, useful and unbiased feedback.

Buxton says there are several national organizations and consulting programs that provide mystery shopping services to the auto repair industry for roughly $250–$1,000. She suggests finding a firm with significant experience in the auto industry, one that specializes in providing services to small, independent businesses. It should also have a strong pool of mystery shoppers to find one who best matches your needs, and the firm should provide detailed reports to monitor performance over time.

4. Conduct a benchmark study. Conduct an initial mystery shopping trip without telling any employees, Buxton says. Use those results as a benchmark to determine how you’re currently performing. That allows owners to create a baseline on which to compare future results.

5. Announce the Initiative. Following the benchmark study, let every employee know about the mystery shopping program. Explain that it’s not designed as a spy tactic, but rather a strategy to identify and improve key performance metrics for the betterment of the operation. Show employees the assessment so they know what behaviors will be monitored.

The goal of that is to quickly ensure every employee will perform their absolute best with every customer. Letting employees know about the mystery shopper doesn’t defeat the purpose of the effort because they still don’t know who will be coming or when it will happen.

6. Do it regularly. Mystery shopping shouldn’t be a “one-and-done” effort, Buxton says. Some of the best programs are conducted on a monthly basis to keep employees alert.
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7. Hit different employees. The size and specifics of your operation will drive your timing and frequency of the mystery shopping process, Buxton says. Ultimately, make sure you assess every office employee. For example, you might have daytime, evening, weekday and weekend hours when different sets of employees work. It’s a good idea to conduct the mystery shopping process for each group.

8. Reveal the results. Make the assessment results available to every staff member. Black out the names of employees included in the report, and post the document on the bulletin board, Buxton says. Talk about the report during staff meetings, and take time to promote good behaviors and discuss resolutions to bad ones.

“Mystery shopping isn’t worth the time if you keep the results to yourself,” Buxton says. “Mystery shopping will reveal your weaknesses, but it’s what you do with the information that determines the success of the process. You need to be ready to have critical conversations when the reports come in.”

9. Act on the information. Take time to review the report, coach your staff, and implement changes.

Go through the report question by question to find out where you’re doing well and where you need to improve, Buxton says. To do that, compare each category of the mystery shopper’s report to the ideal customer service procedures that you identified in step 1.

You should be able to clearly find each step that employees missed or performed incorrectly. In addition, good mystery shopping providers should be able to highlight key deficiencies and offer suggestions for change.

Buxton advises following three key steps to coach your staff based on the information in the report:

Focus on the big picture.

Don’t focus on the names of specific employees when first assessing the report. Only focus on the weaknesses. Although the mystery shopper might only have engaged with a couple of shop employees, you can assume certain behaviors reported are used among many individuals.

“If one person did something improperly, the chances are good that other people are doing the same thing,” Buxton says.

Meet with underperformers privately.

When issues with individual employees are identified, meet with them one-on-one. Find out what happened that caused poor results, and create an action plan to prevent similar problems in the future.

Celebrate successes.

If something exciting is found, talk about that publicly. Give praise or rewards to specific employees for their achievement to promote positive habits. 

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