By Colin Milner and Michael Voloudakis
June 10, 2006

Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging™. An award-winning writer, Milner has authored more than 100 articles on aging-related issues. He can be reached at colinmilner@icaa.cc. Michael Voloudakis is with Axia Health Management.



It’s not my job. These four words can be the downfall of any customer-driven business. Think about it. How often do you frequent a business that reluctantly offers you service?

Perhaps a restaurant you just visited provides a good example. The host walked you to your table, and the server arrived at your table on time, took your order and brought you your food while it was still hot. These workers gave you service. But they added nothing to your experience—not because they didn’t do their jobs, but because that’s all they did. Creating an experience for you wasn’t in their job descriptions. Or so they thought.

Today’s consumers want more than services; they want experiences, says Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy (1999). So how do you ensure that your clients are enjoying experiences that will bring them back again and again? One way is to use customer satisfaction questionnaires. But these tools may not give you all the information you need. To assess your clients’ experience, you must become a client. A mystery member/resident program offers you a means of achieving this objective.

How to evaluate the consumer’s experience. Implementing a mystery member/resident program enables you to experience your facility as your clients do. This approach can paint a more realistic picture of how your customers perceive your programs and services, allowing you to improve your offerings as well as the experiences you offer, and in turn, increase sales and retention.

So where do you start? The first step in implementing a mystery member/resident program involves hiring the right people for the job. You will need to find individuals who fit the makeup of your potential clients and who can ask the right questions, which you will provide. These secret employees must be able to retain not only the feedback they receive but also their experiences as a whole. After each visit, mystery clients should write a complete report answering the questions outlined below, as well as talk about the actual experience:

  • Did you feel welcomed and at home?
  • Was the staff friendly?
  • Was the environment intimidating?
  • Was the sales person’s presentation non-threatening, positive and informative? And did this individual outline the experience you could achieve by being a member?

But these questions are just the beginning. Once you have hired and trained people as mystery members/residents, send them into action with a checklist, such as the one below. You may want to adjust or replace some questions to better meet the needs of your organization.

The marketing. Odds are that the first thing a potential member/resident learns about your organization will come from an advertisement, direct mail piece, poster, billboard, lecture, sales call or Web site. So you should ensure your mystery clients start their evaluation with your marketing.

Sample questions:
• Did marketing pieces speak to your needs? (i.e., using appropriate models, copy, type size, white space)
• Did marketing pieces tell a story, setting the stage for your experience?
• Did marketing pieces communicate that the facility welcomes everyone? Or did they create barriers to participation?
• Were marketing pieces engaging? Did they encourage you to call for some reason? (e.g., get a book)

The call. The next step is for your mystery members/residents to call your organization and arrange a visit, then assess how your staff responded to the call.

Sample questions:

  • Was the staff member who answered the call friendly, polite and welcoming?
  • Did this person treat you with respect?
  • Did this individual pass you on to a person who could answer your questions? Or did he or she answer your questions?
  • Did this staff member give you the information you requested, inspiring you to learn more about the organization and the experience you will have?
  • Did this individual arrange a time for you to visit?
  • Did this person ask how you found out about the organization?

The walk. Once your mystery members/residents arrive at your location, they should start assessing the experience.

Sample questions:

  • Were the directions to the facility accurate?
  • Was it easy to find parking?
  • How far away did you have to park?
  • Was the path to the building clean or dirty?
  • Was there enough lighting? (for evening evaluations)
  • Was it easy to find the entrance?

These questions may sound trivial. However, the frustration created by a negative experience with these elements can affect the rest of a person’s visit.

The entry. If your mystery clients make it as far as your facility’s front door without being turned off, their experiences in the next 30 to 60 minutes will dictate whether or not they will (in theory) become a member or resident. Their business is yours to lose or gain.

Sample questions:

  • Was the staff member at the front desk welcoming, polite and friendly?
  • Did this individual recognize your presence immediately and tell you how long it would be until he or she could get to you?
  • Did this person call the sales staff to help you right away?
  • Was the staff member at the front desk able to answer your questions to your satisfaction?
  • Was literature in the front lobby up to date?
  • Was the area clean?

The tour and sales presentation. Potential members/residents generally want the straight facts with the data to support them. They also respond poorly to pressure tactics, which in their view reduce your credibility. Your mystery clients should keep these points in mind as they evaluate the tour and sales presentation in your facility.

Sample questions:

  • Was the sales person friendly, polite and welcoming?
  • Did this person introduce himself or herself to you?
  • Was this individual able to answer your questions?
  • Did the sales person take you on a tour of the facility, asking questions throughout about your goals and past experiences?
  • Did this person introduce you to existing members/residents who could share their experiences?
  • Did this individual give you options and/or choices throughout the tour and presentation?
  • Was the sales person knowledgeable, instilling a feeling of confidence?
  • Did this individual provide information on the facility’s fitness or wellness center experience? (i.e.,
    giving information about appropriate dress, behavior, amenities, etc.)
  • Was this person able to enroll you? If yes, how? If no, why not?

The facilities and services. Initially, older adults may feel ambivalent or uncomfortable in a wellness or fitness environment. They may doubt their ability to function in this setting, and question whether or not they can use the equipment and use it safely. A comfortable, welcoming atmosphere will encourage potential members/residents to join your facility, so ask your mystery clients to pay close attention to your facilities and services in their assessment.

Sample questions:

  • Was the facility intimidating? If so, how did it intimidate you?
  • Was the music loud or inappropriate?
  • Did you feel as though you would fit into the facility’s culture? If not, why not?
  • Was the facility clean, neat and tidy?
  • Were the machines in good working order?
  • Were the bathrooms clean and tidy?
  • Were the signs in the facility up to date and easy to read?

The programs. By demonstrating that programs exist for your potential members/residents, you may persuade these individuals to visit your facility. Your task is to communicate successfully that your programs are not only appropriate for older adults, but also flexible enough to include most interested individuals. Your mystery clients can shed much light about your facility’s effectiveness in this area.

Sample questions:

  • Did the facility offer exercise classes specially tailored to different levels of function or health?
  • Did the facility highlight equipment considered especially appropriate for older adults? (e.g., low weight options, easily adjustable, etc.)
  • Did the organization encourage you to meet with a fitness or wellness professional to assess your fitness level and begin a program appropriate for you?
  • Did the organization provide literature on ways to avoid overuse injuries by stretching, warming up and cooling down before exercise?
  • Did the facility offer you personal training services to create a more tailored fitness program?
  • Did the facility offer you training about how to monitor your exertion, so you could learn to exercise at safe levels only?
  • Did the organization provide staff members who could consult with you about physical activity and the facility’s programs, and refer you to health or community resources, if needed?

To ensure that your mystery members/residents offer you an accurate picture of their experiences, ask them to consider each element on your questionnaire, then answer the following question: How did you feel about …? Their responses will help you understand where your facility must do better.

Create a storyboard of the experience. Once your mystery members/residents have completed their reports, go back through the responses using a camera to capture their experiences. Place these pictures, along with the report, on a storyboard in your office for all to see. Once this task is done, hold a staff meeting and walk your staff members through your clients’ experiences. When you complete this process, you should have a task list for each department to use to improve the experiences you offer—this may involve anything from the way your facility lays out equipment to the way staff treat a client.


The bottom line is unless you know what your client is experiencing, you will never be able to give them the experiences they desire. Remember, what’s good for your member/resident is good for your business. Someone who has good experiences in your facility is someone who will feel more inclined to keep coming back.