WSU takes page from Nordstrom: Uses 'secret shopper' to critique service at Martin Stadium

HIS TITLE – director of event management – rings on the officious side, but make no mistake, Ben Clarke is all about having a good time. More specifically, he wants to make sure your game-day experience at Martin Stadium – from the food to the ushers – keeps you coming back with a smile.

So when Clarke was promoted to his current position in early 2012, he deemed the time right to steal a page out of the Nordstrom customer service tool bag: Secret shoppers.

“How can we improve in a cost-effective way? That’s what this is all about,” Clarke recently told

To help assess how WSU’s athletic department is functioning on football Saturdays, Clarke contracts with an Ohio-based firm that specializes in assessing every aspect of a sporting venue, from restroom cleanliness to the uniforms worn by the folks in guest services.

The firm, called Ephus 21, works with 20 or more schools each year, including two – Auburn and Notre Dame – who are known for game-day excellence. Since the 2012 Apple Cup, the firm has evaluated one WSU home game a season and submitted a report card afterward.

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In addition, because they work with so many schools, “we’re able to see and borrow on best practices,” Clarke notes. “Wake Forest, for example, prints on their tickets what gate is closest to that seat in order to streamline entry. We’re now doing that too. Sometimes it’s the small things that can make big differences.”

LAST OCTOBER, WHEN THE Cougs were cruising to a home victory over Oregon State, a regular-looking guy in his 50s, wearing Cougar gear, was among the 32,000-plus on hand. He was in the stands and up in the club seats, virtually all over the stadium, but he wasn’t watching any football.

He was the secret shopper.

“I won’t tell you his name because I don’t want anybody Googling his photo for next time,” Clarke laughs.

This stealth fan timed how long it took to get in line, place an order, pay and then walk away with a white chocolate mocha. For the record, at the concession stand near section 11, the process totaled three minutes.

He found dust on seat cushions, deemed the cheese bread in the club section to be excellent, and couldn’t help but smile at how excited Coug fans became when they saw themselves on the big screen or had the opportunity to finish Glenn Johnson’s go-to phrase, “And that’s … another… Cougar … first down."

He also noticed that the second-quarter line to the men’s room near sections 3 and 4 created navigation issues for the rest of the concourse and recommended a Disney-style snake line to mitigate.

This secret shopper marveled at the engagement level of ticketing personnel, even giving national MVP honors to Rhonda, a ticket scanner, and the entire will call office. Kalein in guest services also earned national MVP honors.

WSU’s ushers, though, didn’t fare so well. For one, there were too few to adequately cover the stands, the secret shopper reported. And many of those in action weren’t sufficiently knowledgeable on how, for example, to get to the club section from the opposite side of the stadium.

The list goes on.

Clarke said this type of insight, from small to big, is invaluable in maximizing customer service.

One of the biggest takeaways from the OSU game, he said, “is that our ‘way finding’ signage around the perimeter of the stadium is lacking. We have plans in place right now to address that in a major way for this season. It’s going to be beautiful.”

He noted that the secret shopper raved about the pre-game atmosphere in the Fieldhouse – scoring it just a smidge below exceptional – but found no signage directing people to it.

“This fall, for someone new to campus or someone who hasn’t been back in 20 years, we’ll make sure you know exactly how to find the bookstore, the Fieldhouse, the fun zone for kids …”

Clarke said Ephus 21 is already locked in for another inspection this fall. He of course won’t disclose which game it will be.

“We’ll get on a conference call about a month out and talk about everything from how we want him to buy tickets to which parking lots to try, really every piece that goes into an enjoyable game-day experience.

“Our goal is continuous improvement and this one way we’re getting there.”


An unexpected footnote in last October’s inspection came not from the Pullman experience but the secret shopper’s brief drive through Colfax on the way to the game, Clarke said.

All the Cougar signs and banners along Colfax’s Main Street, the shopper said, kicked off the game-day experience in a way not seen anywhere else in the country. The excitement of game day was extended 20 miles away from campus, and set the tone for the festive day, the shopper said.

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