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NIAGARA SECRET SHOPPERS LOOK TO REWARD THE BEST IN CUSTOMER SERVICE

Anita Muzzi has a secret. This Town of Niagara housewife and mother acts as the eyes and ears of those who shop and do business in the town.

Muzzi originated the Town of Niagara Employee Recognition Award. Now in its second quarter, the award is given to employees of businesses in the town who go out of their way to help their customers.

"Basically, how it started is, I was a customer at Wegmans. . . . I was nine months pregnant, and I was in the parking lot with a lot of groceries. It started raining, and one of the lot attendants dashed out of the store and got me in my car, loaded my groceries and got drenched himself," said Muzzi, who wrote a letter to Wegmans making sure the young man was recognized by his employer.

"His name is Greg, and I urged Wegmans to recognize him on a corporate level, and I hope they did that," she said.

But that wasn't enough.

"It got me to thinking. There was no program to recognize people who do outstanding work in the town," she said. Muzzi went to Niagara Supervisor Steven C. Richards with her idea for a customer service award. "He took it to the Town Board, and they embraced it," she said.

The town's "Secret Shopper Program" was born.

Other who shop or do business in the town help Muzzi uncover worthy candidates for the award.

"We're like Santa and the elves," she said. "At any given time there can be three of them, but they have eyes and ears everywhere." Of the eight awards given out so far, at least one was recommended "through the grapevine."

Muzzi has a background in customer service. She received extensive training in many different customer service programs while working for the Marriott Corp. in hotel management.

"I know that many smaller businesses can't afford to go through the process of customer service training," she said. "That's why this award is so good. I think it's a bonus for a lot of the young people who receive it. It's a pat on the back and a great positive for businesses. They can use it as a learning experience for the rest of their employees."

The award is not restricted to small businesses. Any business in the town is eligible. The secret shoppers don't target specific places to test.

"We just go about our business, where we frequent in the town, big or small. We've had some negative experiences, too, but we don't bring those to light," Muzzi said.

Local businesses whose employees have been recognized include M&T Bank, Bose Factory Store, Tops Market, Rex TV and Appliance and Wegmans.

Michelle Winn didn't think anything about the irate gentleman at the deli counter at Wegmans on a recent Saturday. She treated him with the same respect she reserves for all her customers. Little did she know she was being observed.

"It was very busy, and this gentleman was very rude. Michelle really bent over backwards to help him. She really kept her cool, and he actually left laughing," said Muzzi, who happened to be shopping in the deli department that day.

Winn, 21, who has worked for Wegmans for 19 months, was pleasantly surprised to receive the award, now displayed in the front of the store on Military Road.

"On the way walking up to the office I kept thinking, 'What did I do?' " Winn said about the day she was told about the award. "I was so surprised. I was happy. It made my day, and I still think about it."

Winn says she likes to have conversations with her customers, and treat them like friends.

"I don't want them to think they're just another customer -- they're more," she said. "Even the ones that come in with attitudes, I'll smile at them and try to talk with them."

"If I see something that isn't right or if I'm treated in not a good way, I'm the first one to complain," admits Muzzi, who calls herself a "chronic complainer."

"But on the flip side, I'm the first one to praise as well. That's how this all came about."

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