Specialist retail research agency ESA has been working closely with Total UK for seven years, setting up and running a tailored mystery-shopping programme. The programme has enabled Total to monitor, assess and improve customer service and its forecourt facilities to ensure the overall service offered exceeds that of its competitors and encourages customer loyalty. Total had realised that while it had a strong network of sites in terms of store size and location, it had no real coherent understanding of what level of service was on offer to the customer.

Michael Crane, marketing executive at Total, says: “We realised some time ago that the landscape was changing for forecourt retailers. We knew that consumers were increasingly looking for added value when they visited a petrol station, but were unsure of the extent to which we were meeting this need, and how the service we offered was perceived by our customers.

“As an organisation, we have always been pro-active, and bringing in ESA to set up a mystery shopping programme enabled us to stay ahead of our competitors by identifying key areas for improvement and implementing the necessary changes almost instantly. We are now able to specify a range of key performance indicators (KPI’s) and monitor these on a rolling basis, continually improving the service we offer our customers.”

In close partnership with the Total head office team, the Mystery Shopping Programme is managed and co-ordinated by ESA and forms a fundamental part of the process of continual assessment and improvement. The custom-designed programme, now embedded throughout the Total network, ensures continued focus by its staff members to maintain the high standards Total expects. Each of the company’s 800-plus sites are now visited by mystery shoppers at least eight times a year. Checks are made on service (sales assistant to customer at all stages of their visit to the store); cleanliness (toilets, forecourt – including valet facilities and shop) and facilities (availability to the customer); which are standard KPI tests. These visits are arranged to either coincide with a store promotional period change so that Total can identify any problems that may occur, or during specific busy times during the year such as sporting events and Valentines Day. The mystery shopper’s report then allows Total to broadly monitor the service that its customers receive.

An aspect of service that is monitored on each visit is Total’s loyalty scheme Tops. Not only is a sales assistant expected to ask every customer: “Do you have a tops card?” or “Do you collect points?”, if they receive a negative response from this first question, they are then expected to try to sign the customer up to the scheme. This enables Total to closely monitor levels of customer awareness of the programme, while at the same time examine the redemption rates.

The sales assistants are also asked to try to ‘sell-up’ any shop items that customers approach the counter with. For example, if a customer approaches with a chocolate bar and this is on promotion, the sales assistant is expected to inform the customer of the promotion. Of course training is given to staff to help improve selling skills and the results from the mystery shopping give an insight into how well this training is carried out.

Following the mystery visits, each store promptly receives a report detailing the findings and includes a detailed action plan, which identifies any areas of concern. The initial rounds of research took place in 1997 and provided insight as to good and bad practice across Total’s network. The information was used to form the framework of the programme today. Staff training and development continues to evolve as a result of the findings of the mystery-shopping programme.

Crane continues: “It became apparent at a very early stage that there were very few universal service practices across Total sites and that the findings of the mystery shopping depended solely upon the attendant’s ‘natural’ customer service skills. Fundamental aspects such as greeting and thanking customers ranged from excellent to non-existent.

“This has been addressed and significantly improved and, while we cannot afford to neglect the basics, we are now focusing on the more value added aspects, such as offering our Tops card to customers, packing their bags for them, and directing them to our latest promotions. This is the type of service customers have come to expect from any other retail environment and these are the aspects that separate retail staff from petrol station attendants.”

Sales assistants are offered incentives in the form of vouchers as a way of encouraging constant high standards, the emphasis being on service to the customer. League tables are also produced per area to promote healthy competition between stores.

In conjunction with Total head office, ESA has been holding on-the-road open days to educate the Total area and regional managers about the mystery-shopping programme and its importance in keeping Total ahead of the competition. ESA has also designed and implemented a dedicated secure website, specific to Total’s requirements, solely for the mystery shopping programme. This allows improved reporting time to area and regional managers. It supplies all users with the ability to analyse the scores from their stores and allows all Total personnel to report at their own convenience, 24 hours a day.

“Mystery shopping provides us with a snap-shot of what is happening every day in individual stores,” says Crane. “As well as identifying training needs and implementing change, it is key to achieving internal ‘buy-in’ and motivating staff to deliver excellent customer service at all business levels. We will continue to use mystery shopping to develop the service to customers and improve the overall shopping experience at our forecourts... making excellent customer service standard practice is what every forecourt retailer must strive for if they are not to be left behind.”