More Than Mystery Shopping

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

More Than Mystery Shopping

It is always surprising to me how some of the most common processes in a business can be like a flashing neon sign about major issues in the organization’s culture, structure and execution that are unrecognized and unaddressed. Naturally, I have an example.

Recently, my wife and I visited an upscale cafe inside a large cultural institution. She ordered an arugula salad. We took our seats and enjoyed the surroundings while we waited for lunch. When food was delivered to a table next door, the waitress explained to her customer that the kitchen was out of arugula and that she had substituted a mixed green salad. She was skilled, graceful, apologetic and clear, and her customers responded in kind. While the diner would have preferred the arugula she ordered, it was clear that she appreciated the interaction. The waitress returned shortly with a dessert for the table and indicated that the salad had been removed from the credit card transaction already run at the counter.

This is an Opinion

We'd also like to hear yours. Leave a comment below, tweet to us at @ArkBusiness or
email us.

As I eavesdropped, I heard a very well-handled customer interaction. And both my spouse and I heard that she was likely not getting her arugula salad. Not long after, another server came to our table and put a mixed green salad down without a word. She delivered the food and just walked away. No interaction, no accommodation, no recognition that the order had been changed without asking and no accommodation of any sort.

It would be easy to just write this off as a simple customer service faux pas. Perhaps our server was working an extra shift or just having an off day. But it is also possible that this was just the most observable symptom of what could clearly be issues found more deeply in the way the business runs. Working backward from the incident:

  • Why did the front counter (where orders were being taken) not know that a menu item was not available and continue selling it?
  • What policy created or resulted in such uneven training that the two interactions were handled so differently?
  • Where was a floor manager who might have visited each table that had ordered an arugula salad to be certain that an effective message, make-good or acknowledgement was delivered?
  • What is the nature of how behaviors are rewarded or discouraged that allowed a small inconvenience to become a customer service issue?
  • What criteria does the cafe use to hire staff and how does it view hiring, training and onboarding?

One of the challenges at the top of any business is that, well, it’s at the top. The view is far-sighted, the horizon inviting. But the business that has no dependable way to look at the path immediately ahead is going to stumble over a lot of challenges that its customers, clients, patients and suppliers experience every day. The practice of “managing by walking around” is a partial remedy for this. But most of the leaders I polled about this situation were very clear about three “must have” processes.

1. Be certain your organization is “mystery shopped” regularly.

2. Listen well to what those people have to say about the experience. Their view is different from yours, but it’s one that affects your business daily, maybe even minute to minute.

3. Prioritize what you learn that needs fixing. If it happened once it may be happening every day — and your customers know it.

You would be surprised to learn how many organizations do No. 1 and then miss out on Nos. 2 and 3. As the stories come forward, we hear the reasons (excuses) come back as a litany.

“Our software will not do that.”

“They do not understand our business.”

“It really does not matter in the end.”

“We spent a lot of money to set it up that way.”

All of those statements may be true, but in the end your organization will still be judged on the experience you create. When we fail to follow the challenge on the front line back to causality, we abdicate leadership of the organization. Challenging feedback is not fun, but as I tell clients when they are first viewing a difficult 360 feedback report, “This was true before you saw the report. The only difference is, now you know. So now that you know, what do you want to do about it?”

I. Barry Goldberg is a credentialed executive coach and Vistage Peer Advisory Group chair in Little Rock. Contact him at