The Importance of Secret Diners

Traditional comment cards and now online reviews play a large role in this industry, but only a very small percentage of guests actually fill out the forms and/or leave a review. Plus, it doesn’t always provide a measurable result. To get a truly unbiased, outside perspective, a secret shopper or ‘diner’ in this case, is the best option.

For a minimal investment, a true secret diner program can become a profitable training and development platform for owners, operators, and managers. A secret diner also provides a different perspective: one that speaks from the eyes of a customer and not from the eyes of an owner, manager, employee, friend, or family member. 

After a secret diner visit (which is suggested to be once every month or at least every three months), a secret diner should leave a comprehensive report of the visit with a list of positives, negatives, and a score for a variety of categories. This score (which should be shared with staff) can be used as a measurable tool while also implementing a high level of accountability, with a goal to improve the score after each future visit.

A secret diner, whether for a franchise or independent restaurant should be looking to fill out the following in their reports for restaurant operators to evaluate:

Curb Appeal - A secret diner will score the establishment on parking, visibility, the landscape, lighting, and overall cleanliness of the exterior elements. As a first impression, this score is extremely important and should not be taken lightly. 

Greetings – No matter the type of concept (whether it’s a host/hostess in a full service restaurant or a staff member behind a counter at a QSR), the restaurant will be evaluated how long it took to be acknowledged upon entering. Share the in-house policies for greetings with the secret diner beforehand so they know what to look for. A secret diner will also report on how smooth the process was while timing each of the interactions, including greetings for table service and how long a guest is traditionally waiting to be seated or taken care of for drinks. 

Service Sequence – Service staff are often the make or break between a positive and negative guest experience. Are they following proper procedures when owners and managers are not around? Are they announcing specials, walking a new guest through the menu, up-selling, or simply making suggestions based on knowledge of the menu? Are they gossiping with other staff, or are they on their mobile phones? Are they able to adjust to a potential conflict a secret diner may throw at them unexpectedly? These are all measurable results that can be used for future training purposes and improving customer service sequences. 

Quality Control – Food and beverage is of course, a crucial element to the success of the restaurant. A secret diner will test an establishment on timing between ordering and receiving each portion of the meal (including drinks) in addition to the overall taste and the overall presentation. They will take note if they feel something is missing (maybe a garnish), if something was under or over-cooked, or simply could be better in terms of presentation. All of this information is prudent to the improvement of a successful bar and/or kitchen. 

Cleanliness – A secret diner will also take note of the cleanliness throughout the restaurant. These individuals are trained to look for clean chairs, tables, menus, condiment holders, floors, washrooms, and walls etc. From where they’re sitting, what is visible to them at server stations, behind the bar, or into the kitchen? Use this information to improve cleaning schedules, work stations, and checklists.

Special Audits – An owner, operator, or manager may also consider hiring a secret diner to look for a specific issue they feel they’re experiencing. For example, is a bartender being too generous and adding in an extra half ounce (or more) of alcohol when asked nicely by the customer? Are they checking identification of possible underage guests? These are just two examples, but a secret diner can often be better eyes and ears than that of a camera.

A secret diner program is often overlooked or considered an unnecessary expense. If an establishment looks at it as a way to control costs and achieve efficiency, and is completed on a consistent basis, if will undoubtedly improve customer satisfaction and customer experiences. In addition it will also improve methods for current and future employees, training platforms, inventory control, and overall operations. 

All of this is extremely important when looking to grow, gain respectability within a community, or simply improve operations. Without these reports, a restaurant would be losing out on the opportunity to better themselves with an unbiased view of the establishment. Nobody is perfect, but everyone can work towards a common objective and a secret diner program is the perfect start.