Airport ‘secret shoppers’ to help evaluate workers

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The importance of more international flights at Louis Armstrong International Airport was part of a discussion Tuesday about nurturing a super region from New Orleans to Baton Rouge as leaders from both communities completed a trip to Florida to study the Orlando-Tampa area economy.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The importance of more international flights at Louis Armstrong International Airport was part of a discussion Tuesday about nurturing a super region from New Orleans to Baton Rouge as leaders from both communities completed a trip to Florida to study the Orlando-Tampa area economy.

Employees at the Louis Armstrong International Airport will have to stay on their toes over the next two years because the airport is kicking off a “secret shopper” program to make certain service at the facility is up to par.

Airport officials agreed to a roughly $83,000 contract with Evaluation Systems for Personnel to evaluate employees at all of the airport’s different establishments and then develop performance information that will be updated monthly on a secure website, said Gerald Blumenthal, the company’s chief executive officer.

Blumenthal told the New Orleans Aviation Board that in addition to evaluating customer service, his company will examine loss prevention, conduct public surveys and provide employee training.

The company does this by using a combination of mystery shoppers, an employee incentive program and price comparisons to develop a real idea of how an airport is functioning, Blumenthal said. He congratulated the airport for the strides it’s made in improving its aesthetics, efficiency and customer service.

“You’re one of the few airports, in my experience, that have done all three,” said Blumenthal, whose company has been running evaluation programs for more than two decades.

Under the program, every concessionaire in the airport will be asked to provide information on its operations, and then stores will be placed into categories based on what they sell. The company has a wide network of information on how similar stores in other locales perform and will establish a baseline for performance for each category, Blumenthal said.

He said that the company likes to focus on improving employees’ sales skills, because research has shown that area can have the biggest impact on revenue growth. They will evaluate employees on how they greet and handle customers and whether they push higher profit-yielding products. To encourage participation, employee and business performance will be posted online, and those employees with the best scores will receive cash prizes, Blumenthal said.

He said mystery shopper programs often focus on loss prevention or general customer skills but overlook sales skills.

“Anybody running a store knows that sales skills are very important,” he said.

Blumenthal’s company will provide each business in the airport with a training manual. It will also evaluate pricing at the businesses to see how they compare with the same products for sale in non-airport businesses. Typically, businesses in airports have a 10 to 15 percent markup on their products, and Blumenthal’s group will check to make sure prices are within that range.

Board member Nolan Rollins expressed some concern about the price comparison portion of the program, noting that businesses in the airport have specific deals with the facility that contribute to them having higher prices. He said it was important to be fair to those companies when discussing their prices.

Board member Ti Martin said the aviation board has agreed to several evaluation programs in the past, and she’s never been impressed with the results. However, she said she is excited about what Blumenthal is proposing and cautioned him not to sugarcoat his findings.

“We’re looking for the real deal here,” Martin said.

According to the company’s website, Blumenthal’s Houston-based company has about 600,000 shoppers nationwide and has done evaluations at the Atlanta, Houston and Dallas airports. It also works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and restaurant chains.

Michelle Wilcut, the airport’s deputy director, said previous secret shopper programs at the airport have been handled by the actual companies that operate businesses there. This will be the first time the airport itself takes on the task, and she noted Blumenthal’s company comes highly recommended. Airport officials have been trying to increase the percentage of the airport’s revenues that come from non-aviation related sources, such as concessions, to bring it more in line with industry benchmarks.