5 guidelines for getting the most out of your mystery shopping programme

Some organisations are turning to mystery shopping to get an insight into the customer experience, the performance of their front line staff and what competitors are up to.  The idea is to use mystery shopping to find the ‘nuggets of gold’ that will enable the organisation to improve the competitive position by improving the customer experience.   Here are five guidelines to help you plan, execute and get the most out of your mystery shopping investment.

1. Begin with the end in mind

In order to shape the mystery shopping it is best to start with the end in mind.  What are you going to do with the mystery shopping?  What aspects of your business are you willing to change?  What aspects are simply out of scope?  Who will need to buy into any changes that you might make as a result of what you may find in the mystery shopping?

By answering these questions you can better shape the mystery shopping and involve the right people from the start.  Shaping the mystery shopping will allow you to focus the mystery shopping on the right areas and thus get the most value out of your budget.  Involving the right people is essential to getting the parts of the organisation to make changes in what they do and how they do it.

If you do not begin with a real clarity about the end that you have in mind then you end up with a situation like the US finds itself in as regards Afghanistan and Iraq.  I cannot stress enough that you should take the time to really think through the end game: what does success look like?; what constitues failure? ; what obstacles / hurdles you might come across and who you will deal with them? .   I have been involved in a diverse range of projects over the last 20+ years and when I look back I can clearly see that success or failure was built into projects and programmes right from the start.  It just took a little time for it to show up.

2. The most important part of mystery shopping is what you do with the results

The only organisations that get value out of mystery shopping are the organisation that act on the results – they change what they do and how they do it.    Interestingly there was a post on the 1to1 blog titled ‘You’re Not Listening Unless You Act on What You Hear’, I recommend that you read it.

This means that you have to plan how you are going to translate the results into improvement actions.  How exactly are you going to get the behavioural changes in the stores, in the call centres, on the website etc?  The key finding here is that the best way to effect change is to simply share the ‘real life’ mystery shopping experience with your front line staff and managers.  Let your people experience the actual shopping experience by seeing the video and hearing the audio recordings of the mystery shopping.  Why?  Because this has a much more potent emotional (experiential) impact than a researcher or consultants Powerpoint slides or research findings.

3. Ensure that your mystery shopping reflects your customer segments and how they shop

Sounds obvious yet it is a common mistake for you / your brand folks / executives to specify the mystery shopping programme that gives away the game.  What do I mean?  First, your brand folks tend to assume that what they consider important in the shopping experience is what the actual customers consider important.  Second, they assume that the way that they specify the shopping experience is the way that your customers actually shop.  And when the mystery shopper actual shops your front line people know that this person is a mystery shopper and not a real customer.  How?  Because real customers simply do not ask the kind of questions that your mystery shoppers ask nor do they behave the way that your mystery shoppers behave.

There is a great example of a premium automotive brand that instructed the mystery shoppers to ask about a specific feature that the brand folks are proud of and think should matter to customers.  Yet real customers simply do not ask about that feature.  So when the mystery shoppers asked about this feature they identified themselves as mystery shoppers to the sales folks in the dealerships.  And this clearly skewed the findings of the mystery shopping programme.

Next, it really helps to match the demographics of the people doing the mystery shopping with the demographics of your customer base.  If you want to get granular  insight then it really pays to segment your customer base into a small number of actionable customer segments and do mystery shopping at the level of these segments.  Why?  To work out the specific shopping experience of each customer segment.  The same process/behaviour of your front line people may have a signficantly different impact on customers in different segments.   Take a moment and think how you would like to be treated by a computer salesman if you are old, know nothing about computers, fearful and need lots of hand holding.  Now compare that with a university student who knows exactly what he wants because this is his umpteenth computer.  If the computer salesman followed the same process/script would it land the same – for the old man and the young man?  I think that you will agree that this is highly unlikely.

4.  Balance process with a focus on the customer experience

Too many mystery programmes focus on figuring out how well the customer facing staff did in following a specific process and/or script.   What if the process (and or script) actually gets in the way of delivering a good shopping experience and drives your prospects and customers into your competitors arms?  This fixation on defining quality as following the process is right for a manufacturing environment where you are dealing with inanimate objects.  It is inappropriate when you are dealing with human beings.  When you are dealing with human beings you have to be willing to improvise to deliver the right experience and that often means bending / talking out bits / re-sequencing and otherwise playing around with the process.

For example, a mystery shopping expert shared the story of a German company that had spent a considerable amount of money on training its front line staff in following a specific process.  The mystery shopping programme showed that the majority of front line staff were not following this process.  On the face of it this was bad news and upset some people – those that had paid for the training.  Yet, the mystery shopping also showed that customers were happy to buy and were buying from these front line staff.  Why?  Because the front line staff were doing the right things by the customers – they were doing what mattered to the customers!  And that left the customers with confidence to buy from these front line staff.

5.  Mystery shopping is a team game that involves learning and refinement 

To get the most out of a longitudinal (say a 1 year to 2 year) mystery shopping programme it is essential that all parties to the programme work as a team.  What does that mean?  It means that they all invest passion, time and effort into designing, executing, assessing the results and refining the mystery shopping programme.  The refinement of the programme should be carried out periodically – say every quarter.   So when you are planning the mystery shopping programme then all parties should be figuring out what needs to change based on what has happened in the market place (new entrants, new products, new moves by competitors), the changes that organisation has made (products, processes, touchpoints…) and what the last quarter’s mystery shopping produced.

So if you are the person that is commissioning the mystery shopping then you cannot simply specify it once and throw it over the fence to the mystery shopping team if you want to get the best value out of it.  You have to stay involved throughout the journey and you have to put your time and energy into.  You have to co-create and shape it on an ongoing basis.  And it really helps if you make sure that you take your colleagues – the ones that will have to make changes to their departments – along with you.

Credit:  I wish to thank fellow customer experience and mystery shopping professionals – Jeremy Braune and Chad Robbins – for being the source of this post. 

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.