Businesses use spy gear to monitor employees

Proper treatment of customers is goal

August 11, 2002|By Terry Lee Goodrich | Terry Lee Goodrich,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

The shirt button looks innocuous enough.

But it's an instrument of espionage in the business world. Peeking through a tiny hole in the custom-made button is a video camera. And that's not all: An inch-long microphone is pinned inside the shirt.

The audiovisual equipment is a variation on the longtime practice of mystery shopping, in which businesses hire shoppers to anonymously monitor employees to make sure the workers treat customers well.

"Video is the most powerful form of mystery shopping," said Jeff Aldredge, president of the Shadow Agency, based in Hurst, Texas, which works nationally and internationally to link businesses with mystery shoppers. The agency was a pioneer in audiovisual mystery shopping and provides training in it, he said.

The service costs more than traditional written or audio reports - recordings of shoppers' phone calls to employees at a business. But some businesses say videos are far more enlightening in determining how employees greet customers, how they try to make sales and whether they thank customers - even those who don't buy, said Elisa Patiso, the agency's operations manager.

Businesses pay from $250 to $750 per shopper's visit for the video service; $40 to $75 for a written report on a visit; and $15 to $30 for an audio report.

"A salesperson may say all the right things," Patiso said, "but the video can show the tone, the body language, whether there's a smile." And the shopper doesn't have to do any paperwork.

The camera may be minuscule, but "the quality of the videotape is absolutely amazing," said Dennis Maguth, the agency's field-training manager. The tiny microphone is also high quality and can record voices from up to 15 feet away.

The method requires some practice.

"You don't want to talk to the associates sideways," Maguth said. "You want to see them. But you also don't want to turn back and forth like a robot. That's obvious."

Video shopping also requires some setup time. A battery pack, a digital video recorder and a control unit must be secured into a wide belt with Velcro pockets. A bulky shirt hides any bulges.

After hooking up connections, the shopper pushes a trigger, which vibrates to signal that the equipment is working. It vibrates again to alert the shadow shopper that the equipment has been disconnected.

After the visit, the digital mini-videotape is transferred to a compact disc or a videocassette for the clients.

Companies cannot take recording their employees' job performance lightly. Local laws must also be followed.

Because laws on taping conversations vary from state to state, the agency's method is simple and legal, said Charles Tinsley, the company's chief executive. Most states have a one-party law, which specifies that at least one of those being taped is aware of it, but a handful of states require that both know.

Tinsley said the agency's clients are required to inform employees that taping - whether audio or video - will be done. Among the methods to do so are memos, board postings or handbook information, Tinsley said.

Matthew Hudson, vice president of style for Fort Worth-based Larry's Shoes, said he is a fan of mystery shopping. He has used written and video reports.

"I get a lot more information with a video," he said. "While [salespeople] are in back pulling the shoes, the shoppers get up and roam the store. I can see for myself the store cleanliness, whether employees are dressed right, the look on their faces - even hear the store's music level."

If he made a visit himself, he said, "the employees would know it's me, and they'd call another store and say, `He's on the prowl.'"

Hurst resident Lucy Vandekeft, 25 and a mother of a 4-year-old, said she likes the flexible hours of being a mystery shopper.

"And I'm doing what I like: shopping," she said. "I've done cosmetic stores and restaurants where you get your food paid for, plus a flat fee. And at other restaurants, you get a $50 limit. It's really fun, and it's unusual."

Mystery-shopping videos can pay off not only for businesses and shoppers, but also for employees.

"I can use these for them in training," Hudson said. And sometimes, if one of his employee's top-notch skills are caught on camera, there's even more: a $250 bonus.

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