The Shopper Who’s a Spy

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Good Housekeeping
May 1995

The  thoughtful-looking woman checking out a pair of designer khakis on the rack is no ordinary shopper. She’s Vickie Henry, a hired snoop, clocking how long it takes a salesperson to appear. (Too long and he’s judged to be goofing off, too fast and he’s deemed pushy.) Henry will inspect the salesperson more carefully than the garment in her hands: his use of grammar, and whether he smiles. “A smile makes a big difference,” she says.

As chief executive officer of Feedback Plus, Inc., a Dallas company hired by retailers nationwide to evaluate customer sevice, Henry says that the most successful stores are usually the ones that get the highest marks on customer satisfaction surveys.

“I’ve always had a knack for sales myself,” says Henry, 49, a mother of two and grandmother of two. At age 7, she sold more Girl Scout cookies than anyone in her Kansas troop, and later, as a young mother in Dallas, became a Tupperware sales star.

Henry worked her way up from small-town bank teller to vice president of marketing for First City Bancorp of Dallas. She met Feedback Plus’s owner when she hired the company to evaluate sevice at her bank, saw the company’s potential, and 12 years ago, bought in as a junior partner, quitting her marketing job.

Today, Feeback has over 200 clients, including Neiman-Marcus, Crate & Barrel, and Planet Hollywood, as well as museums, amusement parks, and rental car outlets. Henry has a data base of nearly 9,000 people nationwide who “shop” for her. Fringe benefits can include a free meal for evaluating a restaurant.

Customers have a right to be demanding, believes Henry, but that doesn’t preclude being nice. “Returning a smile may mean better service,” she says. What if the service is just plain bad? She advises shoppers to walk out with out making a purchase, and ask for the address of company headquarters.

Some nightmare stories about servers and salespeople who’ve been “shopped”: when one spy “customer” in a restaurant asked to see a dessert menu, her server replied, “Are you kidding? After all you just ate?” When a “shopper” asked a young department store salesclerk the “Venus de Milo” statue she was holding, he replied confidingly, “I’m sure we’ll be able to give it to you real cheap because the arms are broken off.”Then there was the salespersong who, on being told by her supervisor that she’d just been evaluated, exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! It’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to treat everybody well!”