The Mystery Guest Myth.

The Mystery Customer is the absolute most pointless exercise in the modern bar and restaurant industry. Having a checklist of being greeted in a specific number of seconds, being offered a specific dish at a specific point and so on are not what service is about. In my time we had so many of these at different restaurants where the score would come out around 70%, yet the customer said they had an amazing time and would certainly recommend the business to friends, and other times with scores in the high 90s but the guest didn’t enjoy themselves.

All you get is a snapshot of a single guest’s experience, who works for a market research company to get cheap meals in restaurants, not any sort of feel for a typical experience, as a sample size of one is simply too small to extrapolate from. That’s basic maths. The ONLY reason for mystery customers is so that area managers and their operations manager can think that they have some kind of influence over their outlets. If you have multiple outlets, you have to have some numbers that can be improved. You can send emails to prove what a difference you make and how valuable you are to the company, and feel all important.

I’ll say it now. It’s BULLSHIT.

Why the online surveys are also pointless.

Systems like Guest Experience Monitoring (GEM) and similar also have a problem in that people are only motivated to respond to them when they have a strong opinion on the topic – you’ll get 5 stars or one star and very little in between. Oh, and they’re horrifically abused by the staff. When companies offer incentives to the staff to get a certain number of responses, or positive comments in an online feedback system, they will abuse it by filling them in themselves… this is the joy of online anonymity.

Seriously, that’s what happens.

I’ve had managers asking us to do it in the past because we didn’t have enough responses for the restaurant, I’ve had colleagues mentioning themselves in the comments to get up the in store league tables, and I’ve had bartenders filling them in at the bar for a guest purely so the guest gets their free appetiser and tips them better. So, big chains who think that they know what their guests want because of these online things – please stop kidding yourselves.

The Quantifiables.

While you can specify how quickly service should happen, when a party of thirty walks into the bar, a yes or no tick box that says whether the drink was in your hand within 2 mins is not a fair test but “Were you served in a timely way based on the level of business” could work – again this assumes a level of knowledge of bartending that most assessors drawn from the public may not have.

A Mystery Visitor would be able to report back on whether tables were being cleared, whether the toilets were well maintained and whether you had lightbulbs out. But anyone could do that – it should be on your own personal checklist as a manager to make sure the place is in good condition.

Making it work.

By all means have a feedback section on your website, invite your guests to tell you about their experience, be an active manager and speak to people in your bar while they’re there – but don’t think for a second that Mystery shoppers count for anything except manager’s bonuses and posturing at conferences. What matters is if your guests love being in your bar and come back week after week because they enjoy their time there and bring their friends, because they know that you’ll take care of them.

What can be judged by an outside person in terms of auditing in a mystery visit? You can certainly make sure that drinks are being made to specification, and that is something I’m passionate about in chain bars. If you’re using free pour techniques in your bar, you can certainly have a competent bartender come in who knows your recipes and keep an eye on how accurate your bartenders are over an hour or so sitting in the bar, without telling your bartenders they are there. I’ve been asked to do this for friends before where the bartenders don’t know me and I can at least give useful feedback.

If you want to know what your guests really think though, there is nothing that will give you a better indication of what your guests think than asking them, and listening when they tell you. Carry a notebook and write down anything that needs to be fixed, whether its service related, environmental or procedural. You as a manager or senior bartender are the people responsible for making your business better, so have the most information you can about what your guests want.

I can’t be the only one who thinks this, or do I have it all wrong? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to chat about this!

  • Bob Sangwell

    Absolutely spot on. In any service industry, the only person qualified to comment on quality of environment, service and satisfaction is someone who knows the specific outlet, whether it be in bars, restaurants, shops, hospitals or schools, have a system in place that expects visits to other outlets in the same business or even group, and can give an informed opinion. It also gives the assessor something to take back to his own outlet, since there will always be something that is labour-saving, cost effective or novel in the approach.