8 Benefits of Restaurant Mystery Shopping You Don’t Get from Online Reviews

Do restaurants still need mystery shopping programs when they can simply extract customer feedback from sites like Yelp, Google and Facebook?

I have been designing and managing restaurant mystery shopping programs for over 13 years and have been asked some version of the above question a few times. It’s a valid question to ask. After all, both online review sites and restaurant mystery shopping programs are important sources of customer feedback. But that is where the similarities end.

Here are 8 benefits Restaurant Mystery Shopping programs provide that online customer review sites do not:

  1. Proactively collect and act on valuable intelligence before it shows up on review sites. Our clients don’t have to wait to find out about problems until negative reviews show up on Yelp for all the world to see. Mystery shopping helps identify problem areas immediately so our clients can take action to fix them and improve the customer experience ASAP. This is especially important for newly opened restaurants, or those that recently changed their menus, expanded service, or updated their service and food delivery processes.
  2. Mystery Shop Reports collect A LOT more information than online reviews. Every single mystery shop report we collect has answers to dozens of questions about what is happening on the front lines of your restaurants. Each report includes detailed comments on the restaurant environment, customer service, server and bartender interactions, manager observations, food and drink presentation and quality, cleanliness, hygiene, compliance, and more. Evaluators must submit their reports within 24 hours of their visit, while details are still fresh in their mind. Many online reviews are posted weeks or months after the visit.
  3. Management controls what intelligence to collect. Our restaurant clients don’t have to wait and hope that an online reviewer will tell them whether or not a bartender checked the customer’s ID when they ordered alcohol. Or how clean the bathrooms were. Or whether a cashier mentioned the restaurant’s loyalty program. They get answers to all of these questions and many more on every single mystery shop report. We customize the mystery shop questionnaires to meet each client’s unique service standards, needs and objectives.
  4. Consistently and systematically measure Employee Performance and Customer Experience. A Restaurant Mystery Shopping Program is just that – a program. It is not a hodgepodge of sporadic, unstructured, incomplete feedback based on whatever a customer chooses to include, or manages to remember from their last visit (which may have been months ago). When you collect data on the same set of standards month after month, from all of your restaurants, you have a benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of training programs and performance on service standards over time. You can identify relative strengths and weaknesses by location, manager, bartenders, servers, kitchen staff, and more. Our clients often use these results for employee evaluations and rewards programs.
  5. Send a message to staff that exceptional service is vital to the restaurant’s success. Making employees aware of the restaurant mystery shopping program sends a top-down message that management is fully committed and vested in making exceptional service a competitive advantage, and will reward and promote employees who execute on that vision. Service is everything when it comes to the long-term success of your restaurants.
  6. Evaluate any customer scenario. Our clients are always coming up with new scenarios they’d like us to use to collect valuable intelligence needed to improve their business. How are servers responding to questions about dietary restrictions? What kind of service do customers receive if they walk in a few minutes before closing? Are employees promoting the new loyalty program the way they have been trained to do? Are bartenders giving away free drinks, pouring shots for the servers, or serving intoxicated patrons? Tell us what you want to know and we will go get it.
  7. Evaluators receive detailed instructions on what to observe before they visit. Unlike survey respondents or online reviewers, each mystery shopper is required to review a set of detailed instructions and a copy of the questionnaire before conducting the visit. They know exactly what they need to look for and report on during their visit to meet our clients’ needs. This results in very detailed reports with lots of valuable information and useful documentation about the visit.
  8. We name names, collect photos and provide important documentation. Our mystery shop reports include photos of the food, the dining room, table tents, the bathroom or anything else management wants. Copies of receipts contain useful information on the server, items ordered, dates and times. Blink Research’s mystery shoppers identify specific employees by name and/or description in every report. This makes every mystery shop report an important employee training and recognition tool. We love to “catch” employees doing the right thing so our clients can acknowledge, reward, and retain their star employees.

There is no doubt that restaurant review sites like Yelp, Google, Zomato (formerly Urban Spoon), Facebook and Trip Advisor have a lot of power to generate customer traffic to your establishment, and search engines are increasingly relying on them. Restaurants should absolutely monitor these sites, respond to negative reviews, and find ways to integrate the sites into their marketing and advertising strategies.

But a well-designed restaurant mystery shopping program provides so many more benefits. It’s important for restaurants to develop a clear set of service standards and employee performance criteria, communicate them to all employees, and measure them on a consistent, systematic basis. Use the mystery shopping results to recognize and reward specific employees, to affirm and retain them, and thereby lower employee recruitment, training, and development costs over time.


By Marc Ciagne, CEO & President, Blink Research LLC

Call Marc at 202-701-0069 or email marc@blinkresearch.com for a free consultation.