Premium Partners

Service Shoppers

Working with a secret shopping company will give you valuable insight into your members' experiences, and help you to improve your level of service.

What is the one thing that sets your facility apart from its competitors? The most frequent answer to this question is customer service/attention to the member. But, how do you know your members and potential members are actually receiving the service you intend to give them? The Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA), Dallas, Texas, states that one unhappy customer will tell 10 others about their experience, and that person will tell another 10. With that knowledge, can you afford not to know what your customers' experiences are like? Just like other retail and service industries, fitness centers are turning to secret shoppers and professional surveyors to get a clearer picture of what their members truly experience.

"Businesses send us out to see what their customer's experience is like, and they can then change things about their business based on what we find out," says Larissa Gillotti of Shoppers Critique International, Longwood, Fla. Secret shopper companies will evaluate your business in any way you ask them to, including in-person or phone visits; evaluating the ease of use and correctness of website information; web-based customer satisfaction surveys, where secret shoppers visit a website to rate your service on a particular day; and Interactive Voice Response surveys (IVR).

You and the secret shopping company work together to set up parameters, such as what the shoppers will be looking for, how frequently your business should be "shopped" and how you would like their findings reported back to you. Essentially, you combine your expertise of the fitness business with their expertise of determining customer satisfaction.

Brad Christian of Shop n' Chek, Norcross, Ga., says, "there's really a hand-in-hand benefit" to the relationship between the secret shopper provider and the client. "Managers and owners typically develop operations expectations that form the corporate culture." As Christian explains it, people gravitate toward places where they have a good experience. Conversely, the MSPA states that 69 percent of customers leave a business due to poor service. A good experience includes being greeted politely upon entering, noticing a clean facility, interacting with employees who are well-versed in their jobs - pretty much the very things fitness managers work hard to improve. Businesses that people choose not to frequent have likely not met customers' expectations in some way, whether it's due to poor service or in other areas. Christian explains that these companies don't strive to offer negative service; they are just falling short of meeting the expectations of management. "People tend to be surprised by our findings," he says. "Corporate expectations are often higher than what is actually delivered."

Tiffany Gleason, co-owner of Mystery Shoppers, Knoxville, Tenn., suggests evaluating your customer service procedures. She says the employees may be wonderful, but if the procedures in place for the business are not customer friendly, employees may choose not to use them.

The evaluation

Each secret shopper is provided different focus areas to evaluate, or different shops within the shop. All of these focus areas are predetermined by both the secret shopper provider and management of the facility being evaluated. The first focus for a fitness center might be the front desk. Shoppers will be looking for things such as the following:
  • Was the customer greeted?
  • If so, what type? A quick "hello," "Welcome to ABC Fitness Center," etc.
  • Was check-in prompt, or did the shopper have to wait?
  • What was the appearance of the front desk employees? Were they dressed neatly? Did they appear to have good hygiene? Were they wearing the proper uniform?
  • What was the appearance of the front desk area?
  • What was the overall impression of the front desk?
The second focus area might be the exercise room:
  • If the mystery shopper is considering joining, was he/she given a tour of the facility or told to walk through on their own?
  • If the shopper is already a member, was the fitness staff able to answer questions or be of assistance?
Think of each area of your fitness center - group fitness, locker rooms, cardio/weight areas, day care - as a focus area. "Every component or thing that is unique should have its own focus," says Christian. "Every opportunity is an opportunity to deliver and generate strong loyalty," from your members.

Also, make sure each question for the shopper to evaluate is formulated separately. If you are evaluating a person's greeting, don't combine whether they smiled, said hello, shook your hand, all into one evaluation question. They may do some but not others, and it will be difficult to evaluate in those instances. Include both open and closed questions in your survey.

The experience

The key to receiving great customer service is the feeling of being valued. When members ask for help finding a machine for a particular workout, what are their experiences? If it's bad, they won't even be able to find a staff member on the floor to ask. If it's average, they'll be pointed in the general direction of the machine. If it's great, they'll be walked to the machine and be asked if they would like instructions on using it. Across the board, the biggest issues with customer service are the levels of engagement between employees and members - and that level of engagement as part of a corporate culture is often the hardest for managers to address.

If your employees know they are being shopped, one of two things will happen. They'll be motivated to improve their interactions with customers for the long run, or only for the short term. Hopefully, the motivation takes hold and they'll aspire to great service, whether they think they are being watched or not. To get a true sense of what your members' experiences are like, it is not recommended to share with employees any specifics of the secret shopping experience. "The whole point in keeping it a mystery is the mystery," says Christian.

Customer Service Surveys

While secret or mystery shopping looks at the customer service your employees provide, another type of survey gives you insight into how your customers feel about that service, which can be an invaluable tool. Social science research, or custom mail surveys, provide data as to how members feel about the service they receive, and what changes they would make if they could.

"We have over 50 questions, two sides of a piece of paper," says Bill Lazarus, CEO of SEER Analytics, Tampa, Fla. "You can ask more questions via the mail than you can in an e-survey because people are willing to take more time." He also says that mail surveys provide a more accurate view of your member's thoughts because e-survey data sets are skewed to only those who use the Internet.

This member data can be used in a number of ways. For instance, based on the size of your city, its demographics, your location and other factors, how many members should you have? How far do your members travel to visit your center? Do they pass other centers in route to get to your facility? Would they be responsive if you opened a new center closer to them?

Typically, response to mail surveys is about 2 to 3 percent. But, Lazarus finds that businesses who share their findings with their customers, and work to improve on the service they provide based on the findings, have closer to 20 percent response. When people are vested with you, they want you to make them happy, which will, in turn, help your business succeed.

You'll decide, with your secret shopper, various scenarios in which to shop. Perhaps you want the experience of a prospective member, or a current member with a billing question. You may even want a confrontational secret shopper to get an idea of how your employees react under stress.

You'll also need to decide how often you'd like your business to be shopped. Most companies hire secret shoppers to visit on a monthly basis, others quarterly. But rarely do secret shoppers visit one time only. All employees have bad days. And, while you don't want their bad day to become your customer's, it isn't necessarily fair to take that one snapshot as an overview of their customer service skills. However, if you have monthly visits with negative results, you've got something to take action on.

Gleason suggests tying the evaluation of your employees to some kind of reward. Knowing that a certain number of evaluation points might win them movie tickets, a shirt, etc., could be a great motivator for staff members.

Getting started

Smart companies hire secret shoppers before they think there may be a customer service issue, but a fair number wait until they suspect a problem. Whenever you contact a secret shopping company, be prepared to provide as much information as possible about your business so that the shoppers will know what they are looking for.

You may want to provide training manuals, snapshots of what uniforms should look like, signage that should be displayed and even training videos, if you have them. The more information for the shopper, the better. "If [fitness facilities] can tell us what [employees] are trained to do, we can tell if they are doing it or not," says Christian.

You'll also need to explain your customer base so the shopper can better understand your environment and what your business is trying to accomplish. A center that caters to those new to exercise will have a different set of parameters than a center dedicated bodybuilders.

The great thing about hiring a secret shopping company is access to a wide range of shoppers that can fit any scenario you may require. After all, it won't be believable to have a muscle-bound person come in as a "new to exercise" shopper, and vice versa. Also, know that some states require that secret shoppers be licensed.

Most fitness centers say that customer service sets them apart, but does it really? Anyone can put fitness equipment in a building and competitively price their membership rates, but the care members receive from your employees is far more valuable than any bulletin board or profit center. Look at your environment from their point of view, and see if their needs are being met.

Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Press release: Taking the mystery out of mystery shopping. Jan. 1, 2004.
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