Secret Service

Drinks: Drinks
Other: Business

There’s only one way to find out whether your bar, pub or restaurant is really delivering – call in the mystery diners. Alice Lascelles puts a carnation in her buttonhole and waits for her contact to show up

You know the old adage: a customer who’s had a good experience will tell two friends, while a customer who’s had a bad one will tell 10. Well, you could say that was in the good old days. Thanks to the advent of Twitter, Facebook and a multitude of message boards, forums and blogs, those who have had a bad one can now tell a whole lot more at the touch of a button – and probably all before you knew a problem even existed.

And that’s the irony: while customers may be increasingly equipped to complain to their multitude of online mates, they remain remarkably reluctant to alert the one person who can do anything about that bad bar experience – and that’s you.

According to a study by The Mystery Dining Company, 50% of customers said they did not find it easy to feed back to a venue on their experience. Whether they want to share criticism of what went wrong, or praise for what went right, that’s an awful lot of precious market research going straight down the drain.

Spotting Weaknesses
These are two factors that make a ‘mystery customer’ scheme a more vital tool than ever for assessing, improving and protecting your business, argues Julian Shaw, director of bar and hotel consultants Gorgeous Group.

‘Mystery customer programmes are surprisingly underused in the bar and restaurant industry, considering how much they allow you to identify and respond directly to particular problems or criticism that you’re faced with,’ says Shaw, who has created mystery customer schemes for stand-alone restaurants such as Dishoom, through to international hotel groups including Radisson.

‘The recession has weeded out all the weak,
stagnant operators who have no understanding
of how to run a business’
Adam Freeth

And it’s not just about being bombarded with morale-sapping criticism, he adds. On the contrary, a well-run mystery customer scheme can actually boost morale in your team. ‘If you work with your team to create the “mystery customer experience”, and therefore the criteria against which they’ll be measured, you get great buy-in from them as they feel a sense of ownership about it. It can be a great training tool.’ Add the odd cash prize or incentive into the equation for staff who perform well, and things can even get quite competitive, he adds.

So what are the options available to a business in search of some honest, independent feedback? At the very simplest level, you could start by making it easier for your customers to tell you what they think. According to The Mystery Dining Company, most people (61%) prefer anonymous comment cards for this. A prize draw for free meals or drinks could also help to boost the number of responses.

But don’t just quiz your customers on the food and drink – the customer’s experience begins before they’ve even crossed the threshold, says Shaw.

‘A mistake that management tend to make is focusing just on what’s inside the four walls, but the guest’s experience starts outside. And the first impression is invariably where places fall down. Is the area around the entrance clean? Is signage appropriate? Were you made to feel welcome on arrival?

‘We encourage managers to go outside regularly throughout the day and night to assess the light, the temperature, and consider whether the conditions – temperature, lighting, music levels – inside the bar are appropriate. Because what’s right at 5pm might not be the same as what’s right at 8pm. Go out, come back in and judge it through the guests’ eyes.’

Likewise, your questions should follow the customer’s journey right through to paying the bill and leaving, says Shaw, who says that closing time is another area where venues often take their eye off the ball (see box, right). ‘And you may need to keep refining the criteria over time,’ he adds. ‘We changed the mystery customer criteria for Dishoom twice in the eight months after opening to make sure we were asking the right questions.’

The way you manage and respond to the resulting data is, however, absolutely crucial as to whether such a scheme is any use to you. And that’s where you might want to invest in the help of professionals such as The Mystery Dining Company.

One of the most established names in this area, The Mystery Dining Company has worked with a string of big chains including Ask, Wagamama and Peach Pubs, as well as businesses with just one site.

Paying a Visit
‘A traditional mystery dining visit from us will cost around £60-80, plus the expenses of the assessor’s food and drink, but around half of the cost of our service is for the software we provide to help you manage your results,’ explains managing director Steven Pike. Their nationwide database of assessors (800 in London alone) is carefully profiled to make sure you’re assessed by your target consumer, and there is also the option (for a higher fee) of visits from expert assessors in fields such as fine wine.

As well as helping clients to develop an effective questionnaire (responses are delivered online, overnight), The Mystery Dining Company also offers follow-up support programmes which can help you incorporate the findings into your business strategy and training, and even see how you’re performing in relation to the competition.

‘[But] it’s probably important to stress that a scheme is a long-term commitment to understanding your customers’ needs, then learning and acting in a continuous cycle in a way that encourages customers to return and recommend – rather than a quick-fix solution,’ says Pike. 

Develop & Expand
Lee Cash, founder of Peach Pubs, used The Mystery Dining Company to help him grow his business from three pubs to 13. ‘Starting with one venue means you can be intuitive about what you do,’ he says, ‘but as you begin to expand you need to work out a way to bottle that intuitiveness to replicate it across different pubs. Monitoring customer service is crucial. You can’t ever have too much information about your business.’ 

‘Monitoring service is crucial. You can’t ever have too
much information about your business’
Lee Cash

Another advocate of the mystery customer is general manager of Galvin at Windows, Fred Sirieix, who has become something of a poster boy for the service industry since his appearance as a mentor on BBC 2’s absorbing reality TV series Michel Roux’s Service.

‘I run an in-house mystery customer programme, with one every month for the bar and one for the restaurant. But you have to choose them carefully to make sure they are knowledgeable enough, and also able to really tell you the truth,’ he says. ‘We have a set of questions that we give every mystery customer but then we might also add a specific mission – a particularly demanding customer, or someone with a special request, for example.

Repeat Custom
‘Our aim is 95% satisfaction. But what matters is not so much whether you, the staff, make a mistake but how you handle it. You can actually make a mistake and yet, if you handle it well, still get 95%. It’s ultimately about whether the customer will return. A mystery customer programme is important because you need to know how you are performing – it is not a luxury,’ he concludes.

‘One thing we always look at when we’re doing training are things we call TNT – tiny noticeable things,’ says Adam Freeth, director of bar consultants Shaker UK, who regularly spring mystery customer visits of their own on clients that have included the Barbican, Itsu and Compass Group. ‘That could be a dirty menu, failing to replace a wet napkin under a drink, a messy bar, or failing to offer the customer another drink.

‘Ninety-nine per cent of the time, meeting, and exceeding, expectations is not about the décor, or the drink, or how comfy the seat is – it’s about service. What this recession has done is weed out all the weak, stagnant operators who have no understanding of how to run a business and provide proper service. The truth is that people are still going out – they’re just going to places that do it better.’ 


The bad stuff

Sometimes it takes a pro to spot the problems behind the scenes – Soulshakers bar consultant and bartender Michael Butt reveals some of the top bartending offences he encounters as a mystery customer:

1 Bad hygiene
This means both personal and in the venue. It’s no
wonder they have paper cases for drinking straws in the US.

2 Short pouring
Every bar, nearly every time (people pass their freepour test with a bubble stop but finish their pour with a high cut flourish).

3 Inconsistency across staff
The same drink from different tenders tasting different. When the drink is from the menu there is no excuse for the bartenders not to have reached a consensus on the best method and measures.

4 Theft
Of all manners, from both customers and the house.

5 Lack of salespersonship
Bartenders reduced to order takers at the first sign of busy trade – exactly the opposite of what a well set-up and well-trained bar can achieve.

6 No sell-by dates of wine/juice/fruit
Brown wine, fizzy pineapple and grizzled wedges.

7 Indiscriminate use of cocktail napkins for cleaning
Expensive and environmentally unfriendly even compared with blue roll.


The Mystery Dining Company brings you the biggest pub gripes in 2010, as chosen by the customers

  • Lack of acknowledgement at the bar
  • Slow service
  • Sticky table tops
  • The presence of smokers and their debris outside the pub
  • Unclear food availability (e.g. is the kitchen open or not?)
  • The use of processed food where food is served
  • The quality of drinks (e.g. cloudy ale)
  • Loud customers
  • The state of the toilets
  • Unable to talk because of loud music (although this depends on your expectations)

Want to create your own mystery customer questionnaire? The Gorgeous Group’s Julian Shaw shares an example of the kind of questions you might want to ask, all taken from a real-life survey tackling an oft-overlooked service blackspot – the end of the night

Were you advised of last orders and offered the chance to order another drink?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Were last orders rushed?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Were the team focused on the guests’ needs or their closing duties?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

In the time you were there was the bar broken down effectively?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Did certain members of the team appear to leave their duties during the course of closedown?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Were any team members drinking while working?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Did you witness any activity that gave you cause for concern?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

At any point were you made to feel that you were no longer welcome in the bar?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Did management take a lead in the closedown or were the team left on their own?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Were you asked politely to leave the bar when closing?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

Upon leaving the bar were you thanked/acknowledged?
Yes O No O Not Applicable O

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