Beyond Yelp Reviews: Consider a Secret Shopper

Go through checkout at a big retailer and the cashier is bound to ask, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Apparently there is research telling Target, BestBuy, and the other big boxes that consumers would spend more money if store inventory were somehow different or if items were displayed differently—so they constantly ask us about it.

Public-facing businesses—and golf instruction is no exception—can learn something from watching chain stores dig for data about the customer experience. The extreme way of doing it involves the trained “secret shopper,” hired from a legitimate agency and posing as a customer. Online reviews have reduced the need for secret shoppers, but they’re still around, supplying objectivity and professional reporting.

A marketing specialist with expertise in golf shop retailing, Jackie Beck, got hired a few years back to do some secret shopping in the instruction category. Beck was given a list of 50 contacts—academies as well as solo teaching pros—and told to proceed as any curious golfer would. She studied the instructors’ websites, checked on prices, called or emailed to inquire about available services and in some cases attempted to book a lesson.

In a presentation that Beck later made to a gathering of coaches—some of whom were among the 50 she had secret-shopped—her report had the attendees studying their own websites on smartphones, real-time, as she went through actual examples of what she saw working and not working. In many cases there were broken links within websites, long scrolls to get to important content, missing information, weak photography and a general failure to “tell the customer what makes this teacher a great choice.”

Beck found a disconnect between golf shops and the lesson tee, especially for teachers who are independent contractors at public courses. The staff in those shops are trained to promote the golf operation but not the lesson business. Beck addressed this issue, asking: “Is the golf shop delivering messages to you, with accurate information about people who have called asking about instruction? If you suspect that’s not happening, have a few people you know and trust call in, inquiring about golf lessons.” Consider “hiring” a former junior golfer who went on to study marketing or management at college then returned home with a degree. Trade a 3-lesson series for an objective report on what the customer experience was like, in fine detail.

Beck understands that instructors have to address the operating details of their business in small doses. “Prioritize the things you want to check on, and take them one or two at a time,” she advises. Are golfers arriving on-property and getting confused about where to go? Are there messy or cluttered spaces they would find unpleasant. Is noise a problem at certain times and places? Are the restrooms clean? Are the range balls noticeably deteriorating?

Unlike a BestBuy or a CVS, golf facilities aren’t chains that all look alike. That gives the instructor a chance to liven up the surroundings and add a little sparkle, making return visits more enjoyable.

“Your teaching skill is the big draw, but a golfer’s overall experience will play a part in whether they want to come back,” says Jackie. “If it’s a $75 lesson and they feel the experience was worth $100 they will automatically come back.” It takes a long time to learn how to teach effectively, and yet being around for a long time can dull your eye and ear for what’s pleasant, interesting and appealing about the details of a visit.

One final point Beck makes is focused on programming, and the need to bring flexibility to it. “Some instructors will schedule a ‘Chips and Sips’ clinic for women and be overly concerned about whether chipping can be taught properly in this type of setting,” Beck observes. “I say, ‘Who cares?’ The women are happy. Some nights they’ll be fine with skipping the golf part altogether—let them!” If you have reservations, ask directly whether social-night only is of interest to the participants. “Ask and listen,” Beck repeats. “We have to get over the idea that we know better than the customer.”

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