Are you being served?
In these recession-battered times, shops are finding new ways to improve their staff's performance. Brown Thomas is offering gift vouchers to customers who report on how they were treated by sales assistants.
As businesses fight harder for their customers' euro, mystery shopping has become an increasingly popular way of finding out how staff are performing on the shop floor.
Brown Thomas's move is unusual only in that the store has gone directly to the customer -- in most cases, 'mystery shoppers' are hired through firms that specifically recruit for this sector.
Stephen Sealey, managing director of Brown Thomas Group, says: "To measure how we're doing, we have, in the past, used an external company who sent mystery shoppers in to our stores. Now we're changing the way we get feedback. We're inviting customers to go online, through our website, to give us feedback on their shopping experience. We believe this will be a faster and more accurate way to measure how we're doing."
Around 10 companies provide mystery shopper services in this country. One of the biggest is Grass Roots, a Dublin-based branch of an international performance improvement firm with offices and partners operating in 16 countries. They link me up with Claire, one of their 4,000 mystery shoppers in Ireland.
"We have people everywhere," says accounts director Jackie O'Connor. "Our mystery shoppers include men and women from 18 to people in their 60s and even some in their 70s. They can be students and office workers, housewives, stay-at-home dads, retirees or simply people who want to make a few extra bob."
Visits can take anything from five to 20 minutes, she explains, adding that the mystery shopper checks out "everything from the attractiveness of the shop window display to the cleanliness of the entrance, the layout of the shop floor and whether staff greet or interact well with customers".
One rainy Tuesday morning I meet Claire, a former graphic designer, for our top-secret mission: an anonymous 'hit' on a top city-centre clothes store to assess the quality of customer service.
To the staff working on the floor of the upscale department store Claire is just a shopper, but in reality the 34-year-old mum-of-three has been hired to secretly report on everything from their behaviour to the layout of the shop floor.
As we enter the store Claire is approached by a smiling shop assistant and, after some consultation, vanishes into the dressing room with a selection of garments over her arm.
After she emerges, she walks quietly about the store for a few moments, then we leave. In all, the mystery shop -- which was a scheduled follow-up to a previous visit -- took 10 minutes.
Claire explains: "Today, the first thing I looked for was the layout and appearance of the shop floor, which was quite good. I also checked how busy it was and how many staff were present. I waited to see if I got any kind of acknowledgement of my arrival in the first few minutes. This time I was approached within four minutes, which is very good. The assistant approached me, made good eye contact, offered help and smiled.
"When I made a query she asked good questions and suggested a number of alternatives. But she fell down on the follow-up when I came out of the dressing room -- she didn't ask how I got on, just offered to put them back on the rail.
"However, she was polite and courteous and I would give her a seven out of 10. I will be saying in my report that it was a marked improvement on my previous visit.
"The last time I went in I couldn't get any help from the shop assistant. The service was quite poor and I reflected that in my commentary," explains Claire, who does one or two of these trips a week to earn some pin money and get her out of the house.
The objective is not to get people sacked, though Claire says she's had some unusual situations. "I've had shop assistants tell me to go somewhere else for a product because it's cheaper!"
Mystery shoppers can generally earn from €18 and upwards per visit, not including expenses for the cost of purchasing small items.
One company, which does not wish to be identified, said it had hired mystery shoppers to find out why, despite a staff training programme, sales had not increased. It found the experience illuminating.
"We discovered our staff were not trying to engage fully with the customer and thus not closing the sale. Our customers were leaving the store without any follow-up," said a spokesperson, adding that the mystery shopper provided them with a detailed picture of a typical customer's experience.
Following the exercise -- which brought to light other areas where there was room for improvement -- the firm reviewed its training process. "We were thrilled with the response. Within the first couple of months we noticed a marked improvement in our sales."
This company informed the staff that they were putting the process in place, and also established a reward scheme for recognition of a job well done.
"It's a vital process for any business owner or manager to include in their business strategy. It's important to understand 'the real' customer process, and what a customer feels about the service they've just received," the spokes-person added.
Templeogue advertising executive Aideen Lernihan does up to two mystery shops a month in the Dublin area.
"We are closely briefed and given check-lists, it's very professional. We know what we need to look for and can give a good picture of what's going on out on the shop floor and how the staff are performing.
"I get a sense of satisfaction from doing it, because I think it's important that someone who is rude or unhelpful is reported in some way. I hate rudeness, there's no need for it and if the owner of a business gets to know about it, it helps him or her.
"It's not as bad now as it was during the boom -- shop assistants didn't really care about customers because they knew they were going to sell and were under no pressure to meet sales targets," explains Aideen. "They didn't have to make an effort and they'd ignore customers.
"I went into a well-known chain-store once and was left standing for 10 minutes with a shoe in my hand trying to get the attention of staff -- they were all texting on their phones and taking no notice of me!"
Since the recession began, says Jackie of Grass Roots, the company has noticed an increase in demand for the service.
"More people are aware of the need for good customer service and we've noticed an increase in demand for mystery shoppers, particularly over the past four or five months."
During the boom, she says, retail assistants didn't need to push sales, "whereas now it is much more difficult and business owners are focusing more closely on sales and customer satisfaction.
"The whole area of customer satisfaction is getting higher priority since the recession hit. Business owners cannot keep an eye on all their staff all the time to ensure customers are getting the best service."
"We have a more competitive environment now," agrees Torlach Denihan, director of IBEC's Retail Ireland sector. "The same number of retailers are chasing a smaller volume of sales, so everyone has to compete harder. Businesses are striving to improve their performance and up their game in terms of customer satisfaction and service.
"We know that over 2009-2010, the consumer spend is set to fall by 9pc, so essentially retailers are going to have to work much harder to catch every euro of sales.
"Every single aspect of the retail experience for the customer is being scrutinised with a view to learning from the competition and closely monitoring a retailers' own performance and trying to improve it -- and they're using mystery shoppers to do this," Torlach explains.
However, it's not a Big Brother operation, insists Jackie. "It's not about catching out a staff member, it's about running a business well. Most companies have training processes in place and this is a good way of seeing whether the message has been getting through.
"It also flags issues that may become problems down the line. These may not be staff related -- it may be that the in-store music is too loud or that the displays are poor. The report looks at everything.
"We brief the mystery shoppers that they go in as ordinary, normal shoppers and report on this as a real-life shopping experience," Jackie continues. "Clients generally find our reports very insightful and give them a real glimpse into the customer experience in their store.
"Sometimes they get a shock when they find something not operating the way they thought -- clients can be taken aback by what the shopper has noticed. Our job is to provide feedback and show them where they can up their game."