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Mystery shopping a growth business

Steve Howells from Incognito, left, explaing review results to Good Neighbour general manager Andrew James.

Steve Howells is a spymaster. He has a network of informers who gather information and insert it into his database.

His company is called Incognito. It independently reviews restaurants, shops, professional services and just about anything else.

The mystery shoppers are what you might call spies, people sent in anonymously to check out food, services, and amenities at businesses.

"The moment they lose their incognito status, they lose their value," says Howells. So he selects them carefully and provides training before sending them on missions.

Companies - mostly in the hospitality industry - pay Incognito to provide honest feedback on how their operation is running. Some do it twice a month, some a few times a year.

Howells, who has a history in hospitality-related businesses, says he saw a niche with business owners who couldn't get valuable feedback.

"I was hearing all this noise."

High-end restaurants get infrequent food reviews, but they needed something more consistent. And there wasn't anything at that end of the market.

Some businesses ask for customer feedback, but it's hardly comprehensive and customers usually only report bad experiences.

"The opportunity to know the general customer's view is harder to get," says Howells. "How do you get their point of view? How do you hear their voice?"

Incognito has 18 couples, about 10 women and seven men surveying businesses around Hamilton.

Howells matches them up to survey businesses that match their demographic. Incognito has a series of template surveys for different industry types.

Companies can tailor the template to suit themselves.

Incognito also gives advice and suggests solutions for problems.

"All businesses today are too busy and don't have time to just be told what their problems are."

It's popular enough that Howells is looking into franchising the business in other cities. He wanted to wait another year or so, but people have been "jumping the gun" and asking if they can do it already.

Tauranga and Auckland already have their own quasi-franchises, managed centrally from Hamilton.

The secret to the business' success, says Howells, is dedicated quality people and "superb software".

The custom-built program collates data and creates surveys. It even gives a warning if a reviewer is being sent to the same business too frequently.

Howells is talking to the developers and hopes to have the software working for separate franchises early this year.

Howells says there will always be demand, because businesses will always have solvable flaws. Business owners spend a lot of money on a lease, fitout, lighting, point of sale, products. But one aspect lets them down, he says.

"Human interaction. Every single time."

jamie.small@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Waikato Times