'Cottage pie – is that made with lamb or beef?" Howard Loxley is giving me an idea of the kind of awkward question he likes to put to restaurant staff in motorway service stations. He's not a contrary chap, it's just his job. Howard leads a team of six inspectors that roams around England assessing the standard of the nation's motorway service areas.
Each of England's 107 motorway service stations has been put through its paces no fewer than three times during the past 12 months. Howard and his colleagues have just reached their conclusions for 2012 – the project's second full year – and VisitEngland, which supervises the Motorway Services Quality Scheme, will announce the latest star ratings on Thursday.
Asking staff impromptu questions about the content of a cottage pie to judge how helpful they are inclined to be towards customers, is just one the numerous ways in which Howard and his team work out how well a service station is performing in a detailed assessment that can take up to two hours.
The project was initiated in 2008 when the Highways Agency approached VisitEngland to help them devise a quality standard that services operators could use to improve the customer experience. VisitEngland drew on the ranks of the self-employed assessors working on its Visitor Attraction Quality Assurance Scheme to put together an independent team.
"We purely come at it from the customer's point of view," says Howard. "So we follow their experience from start to finish. Even before we arrive, we take into account how they deal with inquiries over the telephone and email." (People phone up service stations? Who knew?)
At the location, the questions mount. "Signage off the motorway, cleanliness of the roadsides, the markings, the car park, the lighting – how easy and safe it is to get from your car into the building – the outdoor seating and picnic areas, children's playgrounds, dog-walking facilities, facilities for families, facilities for disabled guests, facilities for coaches, facilities for caravans, facilities for lorries..." He hasn't even stepped inside the building yet.
It's a lot of work, says Howard, especially since research shows that the vast majority of people who visit motorway services come in, use the loo and go. I'm not surprised: the toilet stop is surely the most compelling reason to call in at one of these places.
Howard tells me that the operators recognise that almost all their customers will use the toilet, so it's a really important part of an operation.
Beyond the toilets, Howard and his team have catering, cleanliness, food, retail, service, the site and the petrol station forecourt to consider. "We answer about 250-260 questions," he says. "It's all about making sure we look at every aspect of the operation. For a service station to get a star rating, it needs to be consistent across the operation." He tips me the wink that just one motorway service station has won five stars this year – the first ever to achieve top marks – Tebay Services southbound, between junctions 39 and 38 of the M6 in Cumbria.
Howard's sheets of intricate questions, with their multiple-choice answers, make me goggle. Does a queue at a shop take more than the four-minute acceptable limit? Were car park bay markings clear? Is a restaurant's dining furniture clean – including the rails beneath the seat?
The questions were written by the assessors themselves, using commissioned customer research. The operators of the motorway service stations, whom they regularly meet to offer feedback, also had an input. In fact, the six main companies whose venues are inspected – Moto, Welcome Break, RoadChef, Extra, Westmorland and Euro Garages – pay for the scheme.
Howard is keen to impress upon me that when he and his fellow inspectors visit a site they always arrive unannounced. He has chosen Beaconsfield Service Station, just outside London on the M40, for our meeting. It has just retained its four-star rating, and Howard is pleased to see that the management has acted on recommendations he made in 2011.
Outside, we stop by a fingerpost sign erected in the past year. "When we first did the assessment, nobody would have known there was a lovely dog-walking area just around the corner of the building."
Beaconsfield, like the other service stations, will be able to display its star ratings for everyone to see on a special plaque. But whether or not the customers clock that, Howard hopes they'll notice a positive difference. "It sounds sad," he laughs, "but our team is now very pro motorway service areas and what they do."
I'm not sure I'm a fan, but I'll never look at a motorway service station in the same way again.