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The “Secret Shopper” Advantage

As a fitness entrepreneur, you work hard to provide your customers with great workout experiences. But do your staff members effectively deliver on your goals? Or is there a gap between your expectations and the service your clients receive?

To find out, you might want to arrange a “secret shopping” evaluation of your fitness business. Discover the pros and cons of secretly shopping your company by hiring a professional evaluator—or by doing it yourself. It’s a unique way to determine what your customers really think.

Defining the Mystery

A “mystery” or “secret” shopper is someone you hire to visit your business while anonymously posing as a regular client. Your team is unaware that the mystery shopper is anyone other than an everyday customer. This strategy allows the shopper to take an honest look at your facility, your services and your staff.

The secret shopper then reports back on predetermined indicators of quality. These criteria can be selected by you (the fitness or business entrepreneur) and/or by a team of mystery shopping professionals.

If you think this process could be helpful to you, first determine which approach would better suit your needs: outsourcing the shopping or doing it in-house.

Strategy #1: Hire a Professional Evaluation Company

Virtually any process or personal interaction within your fitness business can be measured and improved upon, says Guy Caron, a former personal trainer and fitness manager who is now managing director of the customer research firm BARE International. Mystery shopping companies like Caron’s are frequently hired by large brand-name gyms as well as independent exercise businesses. Professional shopping firms then create comprehensive reports and analytics on what their hired shopper(s) find.

“The majority of mystery shop providers offer a number of services,” notes Caron, who is based in Fairfax, Virginia. The services can include the following:

One-time visits. Professional shoppers evaluate various facets of your business; for example, the general knowledge and helpfulness of your front-desk staff, the ease of setting up new-membership appointments, the sales process for prospective members, safety and hygiene concerns, and/or the effectiveness and professionalism of your personal training staff, Caron explains. He notes that more complex shops can involve “all of the above together and more.”

Long-term/ongoing visits. To better assess an average member’s day-to-day experiences, a mystery shopper can be assigned to your facility for an extended time and make regular visits over a number of months, says Caron.

Competitor visits. Hiring a mystery shopper to report back on what “the other guys” are doing is a very popular service, Caron notes. “This [service] allows you to see how you measure up against your competition and [find out] what your competitors say about your [business],” he says.

In addition to in-person shopping visits, secret evaluations can encompass phone- or Web-based customer surveys or assessments of your website and online presence.

Finding the Pros

To research reputable companies specializing in secret shopping, check out the Mystery Shopping Providers Association website (www.mysteryshop.org), says Marci Bikshorn, a mystery shopping consultant and chief executive officer (CEO) of the customer research firm Service Excellence Group, in St. Louis.

Narrow your selection to a minimum of three companies, and ask each of them to provide a proposal for services, says Caron. Request past and present references from previous clients, Bikshorn adds. “Any reputable firm will be happy to provide you with references,” she says.

Calculating Costs

The price of professional shopping services depends on several factors, including the type and frequency of visits and the complexity of the reports (analytics) you request. “Generally, most providers will have a one-time program setup fee for new clients that covers building [one or more] custom form(s) for data collection, and the creation of shopper guidelines to ensure the needed information is captured and reported on,” Caron says.

The estimated average cost for an on-site visit for a “prospective member shopping scenario” at a fitness center can range from $70 to $100, says Bikshorn. This price includes analytics that provide an understanding of trends in performance and areas for improvement.

Strategy #2: Do It Yourself

In contrast to hiring a professional com-pany, developing your own in-house secret shopping program can be a cost-effective, low-risk alternative. Two-time IDEA award winner Sherri McMillan, MS, the Vancouver, Washington–based owner of Northwest Personal Training and Northwest Women’s Fitness Club, has done just that.

When an in-house mystery shopping program exists, personal trainers are motivated to follow protocol and adhere to company procedures all the time “because they just never know when they are being evaluated,” McMillan explains. Thus, her self-created secret shopper program regularly evaluates the training sessions, initial phone calls, tours and group fitness classes at her facility.

How does she do it? “When we assign a ‘client’ to perform [a secret] evaluation, we use actual clients, friends, prospective clients and business associates,” McMillan explains.

An Alternative Approach

Bay Athletic Club owner Trina Gray created a mystery shopping program for her Alpena, Michigan, facility that differs slightly from McMillan’s. Gray asked six members of her leadership team to invite a client to be a secret shopper for a week. To ensure variety, each manager chose someone from an assigned demographic, based on age, length of membership and/or level of participation in facility programs.

The managers were not allowed to tell each other whom they had picked, “because we didn’t want [any participating] member to get preferential treatment,” notes Gray, who also created the Corporate Fit Challenge™.

In Gray’s model, each secret shopper was asked to share his or her thoughts via email. Issues discussed ranged from the temperature of a pesky locker-room showerhead to gym floor signage suggestions to opinions on facility staff. “I love reading the feedback,” says Gray. “I already know that we do the big things well—we deliver a great fitness experience in a beautiful facility—but it’s so helpful to know what details are being overlooked.”

Gray recommends conducting secret shopper evaluations twice a year, the month after the two busiest months of the year (for her club, that’s in February and October.)

Real-World Remuneration

A do-it-yourself approach can be much cheaper than hiring outside professionals. For example, instead of paying out cash, McMillan thanks evaluators with a free personal training session (a $70 value); Gray rewards participants with a gift certificate for lunch.

Go Pro or Go Solo?

Whether you choose to hire an outside company or create an in-house program will depend on your budget, your goals and your need for total impartiality.

Consider that professional mystery shopping companies consist of objective experts who can provide you with a sophisticated analysis of trends. “They have scientific, mathematic and sociologic theories standing behind their knowledge,” says Bikshorn.

Plus, professional evaluators with fitness industry experience are often better able to contextualize the quality of your service delivery. “With our years of experience in the health and wellness industry, we are able to provide our clients with benchmarking [in comparison with] other similar companies within the industry,” says Caron. In contrast, he notes that asking friends or existing customers for “mystery” feedback can, in actuality, yield biased results.

However, creating an in-house evaluation process is a lot cheaper than hiring outside assessors, and the in-house option is relatively risk-free. Gray feels that asking current members for feedback also aligns well with her overall company philosophy. “I like my team to be the face of the business, and I want to set the example that we are open to any and all feedback,” she explains.

Regardless of how you choose to complete a mystery shopping evaluation, the feedback you receive can be essential for driving your business to the next level. “Many world-class businesses conduct secret shops,” says McMillan. “We strive for the same level of consistency and excellence and have found our in-house secret shopping program to be invaluable.”

Sharing the Secret

“The reality is, mystery shopping programs work,” says Bikshorn. “With so many fitness center choices available in every community, the customer service experience is the strategic differential. How can fitness businesses afford not to focus on the customer’s perception and satisfaction?” Even when you think your business is on track, it pays to see it again through a client’s eyes.

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