Jennifer Ludwig, Business Journal Reporter
Volunteer Valley Business Journal
February 22, 1999

Faced with poor customer service that drives potential buyers away, more and more local businesses are sending in "secret shoppers'" to evaluate the overall performance of their employees as well the condition of their stores or offices.

Founded in 1994 by Beverly Gleason and her two daughters, Tiffany Gleason and Trish Amburn, Mystery Shoppers is a Knoxville-based business which promises to bring customers back by observing employees and targeting the problem areas so they can be corrected,

"Customer service can make or break a business," Beverly Gleason stated, "We provide companies with unbiased, accurate information about how well each location is performing. Our whole aim is to help companies become more effective."

Secret shoppers can evaluate cleanliness. Employee helpfulness and overall customer satisfaction in businesses such as retail stores, banks, hospitals, convenience stores, doctor's offices and even fast food franchises.

Using this service is a positive way to get your business to succeed and is also a very effective tool to improve overall service, said Tiffany Gleason,

Mystery Shoppers offers a specialized service by using surveys written specifically for the type of business they are reviewing. They also provide detailed comment sections, which allow the customer to describe why your company received the scores it did.

"Companies began looking at product quality instead of customer service;' Tiffany Gleason said. "Customer service is really what sets you apart from your competitors."

There are now 100 mystery shopping companies nationwide which have combined forces to add credibility to the service.

According to Tiffany Gleason, the union has been a very positive experience and even though the companies are competitive it has allowed for the growth of the business.

"We have really helped each other out," Tiffany Gleason said "It really helps our credibility to belong to a national organization."

Several area businesses have benefited from Mystery Shoppers' services, including: Buddy's Bar-B-Q, Jiffy lube, St. Mary's, Petro's, Chili and Chips and Blount Memorial.

"There is no question that using Mystery Shoppers has helped improve our business and has pointed out shortcomings we may have had," said Frank Shipley, president of Pinnacle Sales Co., owner of the Jiffy Lubes in Knoxville.

Shipley, who has used Mystery Shoppers for 4 years, added that using the service gives companies an opportunity to evaluate employees' honesty and customer service performance. In addition, employees seem to stay more focused when any customer could actually be a secret shopper, he said.

"[Mystery Shopper] really lets us know how well our people are doing presenting our store, and if we have the kind of place customers would want to return to:' said Shipley.

Todd Wolf, Vice president of Buddy's Bar-B-Q, also voiced satisfaction with the service provided by secret shoppers.

"It is like an extra set of eyes and gives us an opportunity to see what customers think of our restaurants but do not normally tell you," said Wolf.

More information on the national Mystery Shopper Association can be found on their World Wide Web site.