Improving customer service increases referrals and solidifies long-term relationships. To improve the way you treat clients, you can train staff, give them books, and provide service incentives. Or you can hire a “mystery shopper.”

Marketing and management consultant Laura Benjamin (www.laura says it's easy to find someone to “shop” your company to assess your image and customer service systems. While it's impractical for the shopper to contract a job and examine service from start to finish, they can learn plenty through office and site visits, as well as phone calls. Among questions they might answer are the following.

  • Is your office clean and professional? Are there weeds outside, or litter? Are office windows clean? Are signs broken? (All these things could indicate sloppy service.) What do offices look like in off hours? Are the lights working? Are materials left about?
  • Are trucks and equipment maintained? Is truck or sign lettering faded? Are truck windows broken, bumpers dented?
  • Do customers hear their name enough? Are they called by their last name, out of respect?
  • What is on your recorded message? What music plays when customers are on hold? Response times and whether you get dropped from the system both say something about how you view customers.
  • Are you accessible? One company owner learned he wasn't accessible to long-term clients. He bought a second cell phone with a number he gives only to them.
  • Benjamin says the mystery shop can include inquiries to former or current customers and employees. Respected ad agencies and public relations firms often farm shopping duties to marketing consultants. Fees range up to $150 an hour.

    You should receive verbal updates from your shopper and a written assessment on completion. The assessment should include what's working, what's not, and recommendations for improvement. Benjamin says results should be used not to embarrass or punish employees but as launch pad to examine how to improve image and service.