Customer satisfaction and mystery shopping team up to size up the fast-food industry

Customer satisfaction and mystery shopping team up to size up the fast-food industry

Writteb by Rachael Narsh



Mystery shopping research has long been used at the retail outlet level to monitor operating standards set at the corporate level. But in an era where the customer is king – and always right – such a tactical approach to performance measurement fails to account for the unwritten standards of the customer. What does the customer consider to be important to the experience? And what does the customer actually experience?

This is what sparked the idea behind St. Louis-based Maritz Research’s recent research endeavor involving the quick-service (or fast-food) restaurant (QSR) industry. While it’s good to know if a company’s stores and employees are performing up to company standards, it’s even better to know if they are living up to the standards of those that keep them in business.

Organizations often commission customer satisfaction and mystery shopping research studies separately. While each methodology can stand on its own, Maritz believed that the two could be greatly strengthened when used in tandem, providing a more rounded approach. “To prove it, we combined the two methodologies to take a closer look at the fast-food industry,” says Al Goldsmith, vice president of Maritz’s Virtual Customers division. “We chose this particular industry because it really lends itself to this type of research. There are so many outlets and so many standards and brand attributes that are heavily advertised. The fast-food industry also has many measurable attributes that other service industries just don’t have.”

For the customer satisfaction portion, Maritz first conducted a Maritz Poll of consumers on QSRs to find out customer expectations and what’s important to them when they dine at a fast-food restaurant. Virtual Customers followed this up with a Maritz Shop, or mystery shop, to the top fast-food chains to see what people actually experience. By comparing the results of the two, Maritz believed it could determine if people do indeed get what the want when they visit a fast-food establishment.

Cooking up the study

For the first part of the project, a phone interview questionnaire was developed based on input from current and past Virtual Customers programs. Approximately 800 QSR customers (those who had patronized a QSR establishment at least once in the past month), roughly 400 men and 400 women, across the country were randomly called and interviewed about their expectations when they go to a fast-food restaurant. Interview questions covered a list of attributes that vary in importance to the interviewee, including cleanliness of the facility, professionalism of the employees, quality of the food, and speed of service.

The feedback from the telephone portion was then used to drive the development of the Maritz Shop evaluation, or the mystery shopping portion of the research, in which approximately 400 customer visits were paid to the nation’s top 10 fast-food restaurants to compare expectations to the actual experiences. The shoppers were asked to evaluate interior and exterior cleanliness, customer service, and food quality, among other things. Separate questions were created for drive-thru shops.

The sample was based on the recent Restaurant Review market share rankings. The top 10 market share ranking leaders in the U.S. were selected to be shopped, meaning that if McDonald’s owns 50 percent of the market share, 50 percent of the mystery shopping sample was randomly selected McDonald’s restaurants. The restaurants shopped were McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Subway, Arby’s, Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, and Jack in the Box. (Though specific restaurant franchises were selected for the study, the results were not intended to be restaurant-specific.)

The shops were distributed among the three primary day parts for fast-food service (breakfast: 6-9 a.m., lunch: 11 a.m.–2 p.m., and dinner: 4-7 p.m.), and included both dine-in and drive-thru shops. These shop rotations were selected from data collected in the telephone portion of the study.

Would you like a clean restroom with those fries?

So what did the research uncover? The Maritz Poll found that 80 percent of Americans rate interior cleanliness their No. 1 consideration when it comes to selecting a fast-food restaurant. This was followed closely by food quality (79 percent). Order accuracy and cleanliness of the restroom were also big concerns to 75 percent of respondents.

“Fast-food industry executives were surprised to find out that interior cleanliness was the absolute top concern for their patrons,” says Goldsmith. “We would have never guessed it would be No. 1. This is just one great example of what dual methodologies will uncover.

“Knowing what is important to measure going into the research makes the mystery shopping much more worthwhile,” Goldsmith says. “Based on our results, we now know to track that attribute more thoroughly in future store visits.”

Low-scoring motivators included value/combo meals (27 percent) and children’s play areas (17 percent). And despite millions of dollars spent on promotional giveaways, games and special signage, only 11 percent of those surveyed claims to really care about them.

“Apparently the money being spent to advertise and market promotional giveaways and games is not having the intended impact on retention or customer satisfaction,” says Goldsmith. “The basic conclusion we can draw from these results is mop the floors, keep the tables and restrooms clean, and deliver a quality product, and customers will gladly come back.”

Have it your way

As a fast-food jingle of yesteryear suggested, it seems that customers really are having it their way when visiting a QSR. The Maritz Shop results found that fast-food restaurants are indeed meeting the expectations of Americans who desire cleanliness, good service, and quality food. Eighty-six percent of shoppers reported that the tables were clean and free of spills and trash. The restrooms were clean and in working order, according to 83 percent of evaluators. Orders were filled correctly in 96 percent of the visits, while 92 percent reported that the food met their expectations.

“Our Virtual Customers ratings go against some of the common perceptions of fast-food restaurants,” Goldsmith says. “The quick-service restaurants appear to be delivering on their promises. However, there’s certainly room for improvement. It’s worth noting that 14 percent of the restaurants shopped did not have clean tables. To a large fast-food franchise, this could mean that thousands of their outlets are failing in this category, and therefore not living up to customer expectations. Because this is so important to customers, revisiting the establishments in six months and developing ongoing measurement systems would be beneficial.”

Need a combo deal for your research appetite?

On its own, mystery shopping is a great operations tool. But when paired with customer satisfaction research, it becomes an even better performance improvement tool. Knowing what’s happening in the outlets, along with what’s important to customers, gives restaurant managers the ability to drive performance improvement in those areas that really matter to the customers. This, in turn, helps to determine the order of priorities when it comes time to make improvements. Investments can be targeted to those areas that will have the biggest impact on the likelihood of the customer to return, driving improvements right through to the bottom line.

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