By Noël Nocciolo, Special FBA Contributor

A stroll down memory lane: perhaps you remember back when we would remove the Nintendo video game cartridge, blow on it, and put it back into the gaming console to resume our game. This widely-known-pre-internet tactic would often work wonders to reset a finicky machine so we could continue enjoying the game.

In hindsight, this tactic could have been a placebo, but it gave us a brief time out, a sense that we were in control of what was happening, and reset-then-resume, regardless of the game’s ultimate outcome. Of course, those were simpler times in more ways than one, but what if taking a time-out from the day-to-day operations at brick-and-mortar facilities where the video game cartridge trick of adulthood as a founder or manager?

Hands-on facility operators who seek for their studios and gyms to provide an attractive and essential third space to serve members may find that taking a time-out from their daily grind and calling in a mystery shopper can be a great way to step back, assess, provide measurements and then solutions.

Even the most seasoned and most confident operator may benefit from another set of eyes and ears on their product, especially from someone not inside the facility’s ecosystem day-in-and-day-out. Have you ever felt that months and years of the grind, you can no longer see what’s right in front of you? You are certainly not alone in this feeling!

When given the desire and budget to hire a savvy consultant to complete a mystery-shop, (or multiple someones, depending on each unique situation) with the goal of uncovering what is misfiring in the business, we then can distill down a real plan to put solutions into place to make the business better. This is not to take anything away from diligent management staff, but as with hands-on owners; when we are inside of the business day in and day out…we often stop seeing what could be better in the bigger picture. Sometimes stepping back to step forward, with the guidance of a caring and qualified outsider is what is needed.

If you might be in the market for outside expertise to highlight what could be better, why it could be, and be provided a road map of solutions, be sure to consider the below points:

Identify your top 3 goals for the mystery shopper

Be sure to clarify where to focus their observations over the days of the mystery shop (and do read below for ideas!) Not every consultant offering or able to offer this service when asked will be the right fit with the right expertise for your specific needs, of course, so do be clear on why and what before you hire the who.

A meeting? A written report? Both? Other?

How best do you receive feedback? Are you the studio owner and want to have an in-person meeting with the mystery shopper and general manager and/or department leads to hear the top findings, good and bad? Do you want to connect the shop’s observations with solutions and start creating the plan, together? Would you rather create a quarterly action plan on your own and then bring in the general manager and/or department leads to implement? Do you want a written report so that you may periodically refer back to it, fill-in dates and tick boxes on great milestones? Both? All of the above?

Once you clarify how you might best want to work with a mystery shopper, you’ll want to consider what the experience’s tangible take-aways will be.

Below are 3 goals you might benefit from considering when hiring a savvy mystery shopper. They could be the differential you need to see both what’s missing and recognize what’s going brilliantly in your brick-and-mortar space!

  1. Holes in customer-focused and operational flow

Systems, systems, systems! We intrinsically know we can’t build and scale to more locations without great systems in place. Implementing systems smartly and uniformly are the backbone of our facilities. Does operational staff have all the support they need from written or video manuals? Did the person who trained the staff teach how to deliver both completely and competently or were corners cut? Do new hires receive a check-in from upper management or owner after x amount of months on the job to be sure their customer service journey is landing consistently each time?

Having an incognito outsider come to your facility either with a fake name or pay for services (that you of course reimburse) if your staff wouldn’t recognize their name has many advantages. They can observe firsthand how a member is greeted upon arrival, what is covered during a tour of the space, what it’s like from the consumer perspective to sit down with a membership advisor, how 1:1 personal training sessions are shared with a potential member, the flow of signing up for group fitness classes or any number of other customer care points will offer us a unique perspective on what’s actually happening when we aren’t present and overseeing.

  1. Inconsistency in how talent delivers their sessions

Should the mystery shopper we hire have the knowledge to evaluate how a group fitness class format or 1:1 sessions be conducted (and conducted well), this is an opportunity to gain tangible metrics from an impartial resource.

If you own a boutique facility that prides itself on brand cohesiveness and consistency to deliver an A+ product 7 days a week, multiple times each day…and you find that two instructors are referring to a certain move as “x” but everyone else calls it “y,” that’s a great data-point to have for a future workshop or to mention in quarterly instructor evaluations. A mystery shopper with even basic knowledge of your brand pillars and how the curricula should be executed will be able to offer impartial feedback on potential “weak links” on your roster.

  1. Overall aesthetics

Look, sometimes we need someone else to say “this build-out is great for abc reasons, well-done” as much as “these cycling shoes you’re lending are disintegrating; it is time to price-out a reorder from your supplier.” We can tidy-up a locker room weekly in between cleaning staff visits and have it not register that a swath of paint is peeling off a section of wall. Having a caring outsider bringing our attention to aesthetics is a positive and ultimately, it is, of course, always still up to us whether or not we have the time or money budget once they leave to address the findings.

What can we say, it is not as simple as the solution of blowing on a Nintendo game cartridge…but we believe that seeking the advice of an incognito shopper your staff isn’t expecting is the soft-reset that we need to continue to play the game.

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Noël Nocciolo, seasoned instructor and successful industry consultant, travels the world creating boutique indoor cycling programs & advising studio owners. Noël developed a passion for helping instructors focus on vocal performance after hearing voice damage worldwide, as well as after once hearing her own class video and realized she was mimicking another instructor rather than coaching as her own authentic self. Leveraging her performing background, 15 creative years in NYC and extensive resume, she provides simple education and tangible tools that significantly improve an instructor’s class.

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