Students in Free Enterprise 'mystery shoppers' help Killeen-area businesses better serve the public

Herald photo Illustration/Steven Doll - Students in Free Enterprise members at Central Texas College created a mystery shopper program eight years ago that secretly evaluates customer service for businesses.

By Don Bolding

Killeen Daily Herald

In the constant quest to improve and maintain good customer service in a market with a lot of personnel and customer turnover, the mystery shopper program conducted by the Central Texas College team of Students in Free Enterprise may have an edge because it's free.

That's obviously good news for the businesses that use it because they save money; the SIFE team only asks for reimbursement for expenses, commonly the price of a meal if the business is a restaurant. But members of the team who participate are always in town during the school year, and they can look like average customers and come in any time of day or night.

Leslie Gay, a SIFE project director and business management student, said, "Some businesses tell us that mystery shoppers sent by company headquarters are usually middle-aged, white women who come in and order something not on the menu, if the business is a restaurant. Personnel spot them immediately. It defeats the purpose, because restaurant or store personnel might be told a company is using shoppers, but they shouldn't be able to tell who they are."

The SIFE team has a suggested list of actions and questions that often are revised at management's requests, and members visit a business once or twice a month. The major benefit always seems to be pointing out problems that managers didn't know existed because they can't watch everything at once.

According to Gay, problems they've caught have included:

An employee talking on the telephone at great length and ignoring the shopper.

All available employees talking together, again ignoring customers at the service desk. This problem was common in stores and restaurants that were usually crowded and going through a slack period.

A sole employee on duty to catch all phone calls and deal with walk-ins, a difficult situation the manager did not realize existed.

Absence of aisle signs pointing to merchandise in a big store. Team member Chastity Clemons caught this one and said the next time she visited, the signs were up.

"We rate stores on the employees' greetings, how pleasant their attitudes are, whether they hand the customer a receipt, whether they thank the customer for business, how long a wait there is and what caused a long wait, among other things," Clemons said. "I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing it because I'm helping managers do a difficult job. Doing this bit to improve prosperity helps the whole city."

Dr. John Frith, chairman of the CTC business and paralegal education departments, said the program began about eight years ago at the suggestion of a member of the SIFE advisory board of leaders in the business community.

The program has 11 client businesses now and requests to begin service from seven others. These include a car dealer, a bakery and a nursing home.

Other students active in the program include Mike Ruhl, Charles McManus and Mark Hyde.

Hyde said students who participate can take note of flaws they find and tell their colleagues in business classes who may go into business themselves to be alert.

"Some of our clients are chains, and a customer with a bad experience in one store will get a negative impression of all their stores. We can tell top management of problems they may have in all stores. I'm happy to be helping the community this way."

Chains or franchises often pay for mystery shoppers to visit stores periodically, but they often lack the fluidity of scheduling and appearance the students have.

Jeff Orlando, owner of the Schlotsky's and Wing Stop franchises at the intersection of Fort Hood Street and Central Texas Expressway and a client of the SIFE program, said he had heard of shoppers filling out forms right in front of store personnel.

"They always know when some of these people come in," he said. "With the SIFE people, they don't. They're here once or twice a month, and it's certainly worth the price of a sandwich to get their input."

Some stores may keep their participation secret from their employees, but Orlando talked about it right in front of his personnel, and he seemed casual and they seemed confident.

The SIFE team promotes the program on KNCT-FM radio, the National Public Radio station based at CTC, and at professional and trade fairs.

The Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce also promotes the program among other efforts to boost the level of customer service in town. GKCC executive vice president Jack Wade has said a problem in this area is that many employees who meet the public are military family members who leave when their service members are transferred, so each new generation of employees has to learn the arts of customer service from scratch.

The chamber and other civic organizations try to make the area as attractive as possible to service members to induce them to retire here or to return as civilians after they're transferred away. They worry that frosty customer service will create a negative image of the whole area.

To that end, the chamber has sponsored programs by national motivational speaker Bill Drury and is hosting Tony Rubleski, author of "Capturing the Mind of Your Customers," for a talk Nov. 20 on creating positive impressions with customers.

Rubleski will present a program from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center costing $40 for chamber members and $55 for nonmembers. Information is available from the chamber at (254) 526-9551.

Orlando said he thought the whole issue should be topmost in every businessperson's mind right now because retail business is slack due to the volatile stock market.

"There are market corrections going on right now. People are being careful because they've lost some money and don't know where it will end. But some weak businesses will go under while the strong ones will get stronger. We need to be practicing our skills."

Contact Don Bolding at or call (254) 501-7557.

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