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On Food Network’s Mystery Diners, Charles Stiles and his team of mystery diners go behind the scenes with hidden cameras to find out what restaurant employees are up to when the boss is not around. What they discover just goes to show how bad customer service can get when employees don’t put the success of the business first. What you might not know is that Charles’ company has been servicing businesses in need of help for the past 18 years. Business Evaluation Services uses undercover mystery shoppers and diners to get to the root of an establishment’s problems.
FN Dish recently chatted with Charles to find out more about his company and what it does for restaurants and retail shops around the nation. He talked about how his company came to be, how people can become mystery shoppers and how to prevent the failure of a business. Read the Q&A with Charles and watch the new season of Mystery Diners on Fridays at 10pm/9c.
What made you decide to get into the field of mystery diners/shoppers? What was the turning point in your career?
Charles Stiles: At the time I owned a retail store and had expanded to multiple locations. The mystery shopper business developed out of my own particular need for managing my employees: developing training programs and setting certain expectations for the service culture we were providing for our customer base. I wanted to make sure I was monitoring it all even when I wasn’t on location and that the policies and training that I had put into place were being followed. I incorporated my own shopper program to have customers evaluate the service and provide feedback. Soon thereafter, a number of restaurants and retailers began asking if I could do the same for their businesses. My new business grew from there. I started working for a lot of local restaurants and retail stores and expanded into a national presence. I decided at that point that it was the direction for my career. I sold off my retail shops as the leases expired and/or closed locations and got out of retail entirely. That was almost 18 years ago.
Who makes up your company Mystery Shopper Services? What’s your day-to-day job like?
CS: The company has a database of almost 400,000 mystery shoppers throughout the United States. We have a full staff in two different offices as well as a virtual staff of employees who work from home. There are about 30 different employees that we call schedulers, who schedule assignments or edit reports as they come in. On a day-to-day basis I manage full operations of our staff, write proposals and handle client support. I’m also on the board of directors for the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association. There are currently about 150 mystery shopper companies that make up the association. I’m also active on lobbying to keep the status of independent contractors, because about 98 percent of my employees are contractors.
How does someone become a mystery diner or shopper? What kind of experience does the position require?
CS: Our mystery shoppers are contractors, who are paid per assignment. We require a full evaluation on their demographics and they must sign a noncompete and nondisclosure agreement. Once registered, they get assignments from a postings board. For example, a mystery shopper in Dallas might see restaurants, hotels, banks and retailers in the area. They can then send in a request for those particular assignments. The mystery shoppers range from college students all the way to retired doctors because different assignments have different profile requirements. For example, high-end car shopping will require someone that has a higher income and higher education level.
On the show, in some episodes, you’ve used family members like your daughter as a mystery diner. Are members of your family involved in the business?
CS: My youngest daughter worked for me for about 2 years and was very active in our customer relations, shopper support and scheduling department. She recently decided to go to medical school. My older daughter does mystery shopping for us, appears on the show periodically and she’s also starting school for fashion design and merchandising. My wife works on accounts payable, accounts receivable and does some bookkeeping.
It seems that the bad employees on the show always get fired by their employers. Is that mostly the case or have you ever seen a boss forgive a bad employee, allowing them to stay on if they improved?
CS: There are times when the employers do forgive; we’ve had a few instances where that’s been the case. The biggest problem is that when the employee is caught, most will have an excuse as to why it’s not their fault. Typically their dishonesty makes the employer angrier, and in the moment, what could have been employee retention turns into employee dismissal due to their defensive demeanor. Occasionally there will be a breakdown with an employee who has a legitimate reason. Maybe they have a drinking problem, a gambling problem, are going through a divorce — whatever the reason, in some cases the issue will be worked out between the employee and employer.
Do you have any advice for a struggling business?
CS: It starts with upper management, proper leadership, creating accountability for your expectations, developing a service culture with nonnegotiable standards and some kind of measure to audit that, to make sure your staff is clearly following what you have set as a mandate for your service. That’s where the biggest disconnect is — when there are no policies put into place or no one is enforcing those policies. Owners will tend to overlook that and focus too much on the inside of their business and lose sight of the business as a whole. The key to success is to have the owner really work on the business, and put the key leadership on someone who can be trusted to pay attention to whether people are doing their jobs. Most successful companies grow because there are good people in place. This frees owners to focus on building the business instead of being in the day-to-day grind where it’s difficult to pay attention to what’s happening around you.