Jed Kelley takes his wife, Anne, out to eat at LongHorn Steakhouse every three or four months. Each time he orders every course, including dessert.
He's not just being a good date, he's getting paid to do it.
Mr. Kelley is a mystery shopper for Focus on Service. The company pays him to eat at LongHorn Steakhouse every few months, and while he is there, he makes mental notes about the service and the quality of the food. He fills out a survey and sends it to the secret shopping company, which then sends a report to the restaurant.
"I've been doing it now about three years," Mr. Kelley said. "It was really just to get a nice meal for free."
Dave Leonard, owner of Focus on Service, said Mr. Kelley is one of about 40,000 mystery shoppers on file at his office in Hopkinton, Mass.
"We want to give the restaurant a typical restaurant goer," he said.
Mystery shopping companies are one way that companies, restaurants and service-related businesses check their customer service.
Mike Curtis, spokesman for LongHorn Steakhouse, said mystery shoppers are a valuable research tool for companies.
"Over the years our program has given us a solid benchmark by which to measure our performance in such areas as food quality, service, menu appeal and product variety," he said.
John Swinburn, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association in Dallas, said mystery shopping dates back at least 60 years and now includes about 500 companies nationwide.
Any business that deals with the public, including banks, restaurants and apartment complexes, can benefit from secret shoppers.
But the duty of a secret shopper encompasses the entire experience, not just how quickly they receive attention or how hot their food is.
"More importantly, companies can evaluate whether a customer is experiencing what the company wants them to experience," Mr. Swinburn said.
Mary Ann Dawson, office manager and dispute resolution manager at the Augusta office of the Better Business Bureau, said employees receive more than 100 complaints a day about poor customer service.
Dan Farrell is president of Retail Biz Consulting in Washington, a consulting company that offers mystery shopping services. He said that only 15 percent of businesses measure customer service and only half of those do anything about the results.
But ignoring problems in customer service can hurt a business.
"There is a causable effect to the bottom line if customers are treated well versus not," he said, citing a Harvard Business School magazine study.
"We help establish what to measure," he said. "Since we approach the entire project through the eyes of a secret shopper's customer service expectations, data obtained is primarily flavored to reflect customer service performance."
Mr. Kelley said that he records things that he would notice as a customer anyway.
"I would call it constructive criticism. I've never walked out of there and been mad. I actually think that LongHorn does a really good job," he said.
If you're interested in becoming a secret shopper, here are a few Web sites to check out:
Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.