For all of my recent and public boasting of quality customer service on my blog–in the hopes of keeping up my good service karma–today my luck has finally ended, or, at the very least, hit a minor speed bump. Among my hidden talents and multiple identities, it may or may not surprise you to hear that I have been a secret shopper, off and on, since college.

In the past, my secret shops have been mostly confined to two or three of the exact same businesses. As a result, I would visit on a semi-regular basis (say, every six weeks or so), go through the exact same motions, and fill out the exact same questionnaire at the end of each. Honestly, it became routine, and was relatively easy. Dare I say, pleasant, in most experiences. In Burlington, I have to admit, I think one place was on to me, because I always received beyond excellent service and very often was taken care of by the manager himself whenever I pulled in to the shop.

Most often, payment simply comes in the form of compensation. A free meal. A free oil change. A free haircut. Sometimes there is a flat rate payment (for my time, I assume, and it typically adds up to less than minimum wage by the end of the day), and sometimes there is both a flat rate and compensation for a purchase. These are the gold mines.

I have to be honest. Contrary to my very personality, I do not actually like writing up a bad shop. It is actually much easier to give all positive reviews and mark all boxes with a “yes,” rather than be forced into the “If no, please explain,” directive.

This is why, when I lived in Greensboro and Burlington, I learned very quickly that any shop in High Point (whatever it was) was ultimately not going to be worth my time nor the free service. Negative reviews simply take too long, and it is difficult to remain objective and unemotional in the face of blatantly terrible customer service. (I’ve found that it is easiest to just use direct quotes when trying to explain sheer idiocy or rude behavior.)

On the other hand, I believe the practice is what has gained me so much favor in my new pursuit of contacting companies when a product disappoints me. I’ve heard from more than one person in the wake of my WonderBra story that they’ve never heard back after any of their (many) complaint letters, from any company. It turns out nobody really likes to be criticized, even when it is deserved. What has been coined “constructive” criticism, on the other hand, disguised in unemotional and completely objective short sentences, tends to produce positive results.

I can’t actually reveal the companies I work for (yes there are more than one), nor the places I shop, at the risk of losing the job, but today I had an experience unlike any other.

First of all, the assignment strangely included that I complete my evaluation and then take it in to the manager so he or she can see it, and sign that they received it. Reveal my secret shopping identity? Present my evaluation, face-to-face? This is not normal.

Today I learned there is more than one positive thing about remaining “anonymous” as a secret shopper.

I told John about this job because it was very close to his office downtown, and I thought I could perhaps bring him breakfast if he didn’t have court. His only response was, “Really? Have fun with that, that place is just gross. The manager clearly does not care about how it looks or how it is run, I assume because he knows he’s right by the hospital so he’ll always be busy no matter what he does. It’s a dump, and everyone who works there is a moron.”

Including the manager, I soon learned.

After completing my relatively simple instructions (which I’ll disclose, included a drive through only), I checked off a series of yes and no boxes, each very straightforward. With Carter in tow (and baby in belly, no less), I entered the main part of the establishment to deliver one single sided sheet of paper, and to obtain a manager’s signature.

As he read down my check marks (out of habit I actually included an explanation with every no, even though there is not room on the automated form to do this), he questioned every single thing that was not marked yes. I continued to remain professional, even in the face of what appeared to be rising hostility. The cause of anger in this case, I’ll tell you, was in my answer to #8: “No,” I did not receive the correct drink. I did not receive a drink at all. I had ordered an ice water.

This, to me, does not seem like a very big deal.

I planned for this indoor part to take no more than five minutes, especially considering most of the patrons were using the drive through. I became a little annoyed that I was still there after close to twelve minutes, what with his questioning me, storming off, quietly confirming something with a few of the lackies behind the counter, and then returning with a renewed sense of superiority flavored rage. At this point, I was totally chewed out by a man who (1) I do not work for, (2) wrote nothing personal about, and (3) was much bigger than me. First, he informed me that I did my job wrong. *Here, I refrained from pointing out that according to my paper, he had actually done his job wrong, and who was he to know what my job entailed. Second, he announced that he “did not recognize the form.” *Here, I refrained from blurting, “You think I’m just pretending to be a secret shopper for fun, asshole?!”

He said he wasn’t “failing this test” because I didn’t know what I was doing. *Aha, I thought. He’s having a psychological trip back to his high school days, and re-fighting a fight he has apparently lost before. Some things never change. He then adamantly refused to sign the paper, much the way I assume he adamantly refused to complete most of his English assignments or retake a math test because the teacher “didn’t know how to teach,” with the final punchline (delivered with a bit of spit), “Shoppers aren’t supposed to order water!”

To say I was intimidated isn’t even the right word. I was a little insulted. But with a basketball shaped belly and three year old climbing on tables, I wasn’t exactly in a position to fully assert myself. I wasn’t about to leave, however, without something proving I completed my shop. After all this, I’ll be damned if I didn’t get my $9.98 compensation at the end of the day. The man took my pen and wrote “REFUSED” in the signature line.

I drove home wondering what to do.

I called my company, left a message with my contact person who was on her lunch break, and then found that she had already issued an email explaining a “change to the shopper instructions,” in the face of what appeared to be others who, like me, had experienced confrontation as a result of a drink order.

And I bathed in the fragrant waters of “misery loves company.” Oh the satisfaction that I was not alone.

In the middle of emailing her back, my phone rang and my contact person assured me that I would be compensated for the job. She then verbalized my exact feelings when she said, “Write up this exact experience in the notes section. It is very surprising that these managers are getting angry at secret shoppers. You’d think the opposite would be true when the goal here is customer service.”

The focus of my Tuesday morning Bible Study lesson today was showing mercy, especially those who do not deserve it. Naturally, this has me feeling completely conflicted about the sense of satisfaction I’ve received from holding yet another human accountable for blatant disrespect.

I guess I’ll be praying for forgiveness tonight before bed.

Vigilante Justice?

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