Hello shoppers...

I received a very nice phone call on last week's very nice Friday afternoon from a very nice Sara Whitlock, who had some very nice things to say about the very nice secret shopper review of the very nice Von Maur, the very nice store she manages, very nicely.

Before you barf, let me tell you about Sara, who is uber-cool, and what she said, which was uber-cooler.

Sara, who hails from Cedar Falls, traveled across the river to manage two different Von Maur locations in Illinois, then came back home to Iowa (as we all seem to do) three years ago, when she took over the reigns of the Valley West Mall location.

Last week's Secret Shopper review of Von Maur, apparently brought her some information that her previous 160 weeks working there, had not.

"I think the secret shops we do," said Sara, "while I think they're very good and helpful, I found yours actually a little bit eye-opening to me."

It takes a tremendous amount of courage for anyone in a management (or any) position to admit, as Sara did, that they're human, and that they sometimes don't have all the answers, sometimes miss things, sometimes make mistakes - which is where the best part of any of us, exists, anyhoo. Weston Agor, professor and author of the amazing Intuitive Management: Integrating Left And Right Brain Management Skills, said it beautifully: "Making mistakes simply means you are learning faster."

Sara also thoughtfully said that "there were some things you were able to find that we didn't, in other secret shops that we did, and I'm very appreciative of that."

That is always soo nice to hear.

According to Sara, her store "get(s) secret shopped a couple of times a year," and the evaluations are done internally.

"We look at similar things to what you look at," she said. "We look at how long it takes for somebody to be greeted. Were they asking questions, like what you were looking for. We look for their overall friendliness, their helpfulness, and then we do have kind of a grading scale for it."

Sara also told me their secret shoppers keep an ear out for those great questions from store employees that can really help add to a shopper's satisfaction, and a store's bottom line.

"We look at, are they offering additional items? Are they offering our services, like our free gift-wrap and our free shipping?"

I didn't have the heart to mention to Sara that employees at Von Maur hadn't mentioned these two wonderful services, even though I'd told every associate who engaged me, that I was looking for a gift for my girlfriend/daughter/mother/grandmother, depending on the department.

Now Sara knows, for Von Maur training, and now you know, for Von Maur shopping. :)

I also asked Sara if Von Maur values open-ended questions, as much as I, the dufus-King of OEQ, do.

"That was something that was interesting to me when I read your secret shopper review," she said, with a smile I could hear all the way down the phone line. "It sounded like you had a lot of closed-ended questions asked."

Oh, just a few. 16 out of a possible 19. Sorry, Sara! 

"We do spend a lot of time in our orientation training, which is a week-long training session, discussing open-ended questions, and how important they are - that's really the kinds of questions you want to focus on," Sara explained. "And so I was a little saddened to hear that there were a lot of closed-ended questions going on - it's definitely something we try to focus on."

Our local Von Maur store is very lucky to have Sara looking over it. She is, to quote my mother's favorite saving, a very sharp cookie.

A few extra chocolate chips that could be added by Corporate to sweeten Sara's management recipe, would be more secret shoppers.

Von Maur is secret shopped, according to Sara, twice a year. In my view, that's like holding Weight Watchers meetings bi-yearly, and expecting people to shed pounds.

The staff of a retail business, regardless of store or staff size, should be pounded with secret shopped at least twice a month, if the store managers and owners want to truly create a customer service culture inside their four walls. Those secret shopper results should also be incorporated into an equally rigorous training program. 

How rigorous? My business clients are secret shopped three times per week, and their staffs go through weekly training, which is steered in large part by their secret shopper results. 

Those results, by the way, are not given as ratings on a piece of paper, but shared, in group training sessions, as the actual audio testimony from secret shoppers, relating their shopping experience.

In spite of Von Maur's secret shopper program, two store employees told me they didn't think Von Maur had one.

If I was Sara - and I'd never pretend that I was, because she manages a store, and I manage a blog - that would be the first thing I'd mention to employees, during the next store meeting. By telling those that don't know, and reminding those that do, that secret shoppers can, are and will be sent into the store to evaluate staff, it'll raise everybody's game.

Then remind them that every shopper is a secret shopper. They just keep score with their wallets. 

Another great teaching tool is to have employees secret shop the competition. Follow the same criteria used by Von Maur's secret shoppers. Then have employees bring the results to a group meeting, and share them. They'll invariably find great ideas to steal and make their own, plus it will validate the customer service they're offering in their own store.

I asked Sara if any of her employees had read Von Maur's Secret Shopper review.

"Not yet," she said, "but we will be sharing it with associates that you spoke with, trying to get some feedback from there." Sara told me she's "developing a plan on how to utilize [the secret shopper review], and will do some new training programs to try to address some of the things you came across."

Thank you so much, Sara. That's the goal of these Secret Shopper reviews, and this Unsecret Shopper blog - to improve the dynamic between shoppers and employees, employees and managers, managers and owners, and owners and the stores they build for shoppers. By creating a stronger bond between them, we can create a better world, retail and otherwise, for the greater good of us all.

Meantime, we'll keep coming to Von Maur, where we already shop happy, from employees who already serve happy. Perhaps we can all be just a little happier, in the not-too-distant future.

Good luck, Sara. :)


Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT. Email Jonnie at jonniewright@thebuyosphere.com


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