Amy Geisel, Knoxville News-Sentinel business writer
July 18, 1995

Business owners look at their companies from the inside out, but customers look at the company from the outside in. And the customers' perceptions often determine, in large part, the company's success, says Tiffany Gleason, an owner of Mystery Shoppers.

Gleason along with her mother, Beverly Gleason, and sister, Trish Amburn, are the founders and owners of Mystery Shoppers, a Knoxville company that provides customer service evaluations by sending "shoppers" to a store, restaurant or office without the employees' knowledge.

In business for 10 months, Mystery shoppers has already built a varied client list, and has moved into other markets in Tennessee and Georgia.

"We felt there was need for this type of service because of the growing concern about customer service," Tiffany Gleason said. "The need wasn't surprising, but how fast we are growing is surprising - and exciting."

Mystery Shoppers works with clients to develop criteria for a "shopper" to evaluate. How many times a shopper visits the client's operation and their attitude, whether they are typical or difficult customers, vary with the client. The firm has a database of more than 200 people, ranging from mothers wanting to work outside the home during school hours to physicians, who serve as shoppers, said Beverly Gleason, a Karns Intermediate School teacher who handles scheduling.

The shoppers complete a survey after their experience, which is then translated into reports, graphs and other information by Amburn.

Tiffany Gleason serves as the company's sales representative, having signed clients ranging from Cellular One to Buddy's Bar- B-Que to ProTemp, a temporary staffing service.

"Every business is in business because they are servicing somebody, so we can tailor a survey to meet anyone's need' Tiffany Gleason said.

Increasingly, businesses are using such customer service research services, said Cindy McConkey, executive vice president of Ackermann Public Relations and Marketing which has a research subsidiary, Directions Data, that offers secret shopping among its services.

"The quality initiative started manufacturers and service companies to focus inward and a natural extension of that is now to determine now to improve their customer relationships," McConkey said. "Doing more research in general is a trend now, Businesses have learned that instinct and hunches are good, you don't want to lose that, but doing good research also brings value to an organization."

Adds Gleason, "In the '80s, product quality was the big thing, and in the '90s, companies are focusing more on customer service."

Both Mystery Shoppers and Directions Data also "shop" the competition for clients.

East Towne Mall uses secret shoppers for various reasons, ranging from evaluating new-shop progress to determining whether negative feedback is accurate, said Kurt Ivey, mall marketing director. "No matter why we have sent secret shoppers into a store, there has never been a time when we haven't seen some improvement."