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Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shoppers

March 30th, 2016

Over the years, I have heard campground owners consistently complain about ratings that are generated by independent, third-party inspectors from organizations ranging from AAA and Trailer Life to Wheelers and Woodall’s. With the demise of the “big books,” the consolidation of Trailer Life and Woodall’s into Good Sam ratings, and the explosive growth and credibility of online consumer review sites such as RV Park Reviews and TripAdvisor, ratings are as important – if not more important – than ever. What remains consistent is the question as to why a campground owner would be surprised by ratings or consumer reviews, as if he was unfamiliar with the shortcomings of his own park.

Perhaps it would make sense for the industry to be a bit more proactive with regard to the types of third-party assessments that would identify problems and nip them in the bud. Other industries – most notably the hotel, restaurant, cruise line, retailing, banking, and automotive industries – have routinely employed what are referred to as “mystery shoppers”. It is important to know that both your business and your employees are up to par and providing exceptional customer service. At my local bank, I noticed last week how one of the tellers had been awarded for having successfully passed 5 out of 5 such test situations during the previous year.

To make these inspections work, they must be carried out in an anonymous and seemingly random fashion. Think of the popular CBS reality TV series, Undercover Boss, where even Jim Rogers, the former CEO of KOA, went undercover to gain an inside perspective on various employee issues at three parks within the KOA franchise system. Another popular reality TV show is Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible, where host Robert Irvine helps to turn restaurants around by identifying problems with everything from their menus and décor to their staffs and the attitude of their owners. We all need to see our businesses sometimes with the objectivity of another set of eyes.

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In the hotel industry, which is so closely related to the campground industry, there is a wide range of companies that provide independent inspection services. The companies include Secret Hotel Inspector, Coyle Hospitality Group, and Guest Check. There is also a network of independent contractors that provide similar services, in some instances on a smaller scale and meeting the needs of businesses with more limited budgets. These services are so important that there is actually an association of service providers, the Mystery Shopping Provider Association of North America. According to MSPA-NA statistics, 70% of shoppers (yes, that includes campers!) state that they are willing to spend up to 13% more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service. Perhaps more importantly, 78% of customers have opted to cancel a transaction or did not complete an intended purchase because of a poor customer experience. Think of how that latter statistic relates to the usability of your website or the user experience during your online reservation process.

Some companies even recruit and hire their own secret inspectors, one example being Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an affiliation of 520 luxury hotels located worldwide.

What these companies share in common is the proven statistic that the fees for their services are more than offset by the increased profitability that results from the improvements in customer loyalty, customer satisfaction, staff training, and morale that are realized after implementing their study recommendations. More than simply running a white glove along a windowsill, these companies identify weaknesses and waste, and then recommend solutions and remedial actions.

It is important to have access to this type of information prior to the time of interaction with your paying guests. Why not make now the time for a new beginning? My suggestion is for some of the larger, more progressive state associations to explore an affiliation with a mystery shopping organization, and then offer this as a paid add-on service for members who are striving for excellence. Not only would the member campgrounds benefit greatly from their participation, this would also be a service that would add significant value to the member benefits package of any such state associations themselves.

As always, it is always wise to think outside the box, learn from other industries, and emulate the various formulae that have contributed to their success.

This post was written by Peter Pelland