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. 

Putting people back into the customer experience equation

One of the biggest issues that I have with the customer experience movement is that the process, technology, efficiency and standardisation mindset that is appropriate in the manufacturing environment is being applied to the services industries and the service environment. And in the process the very best of what people have to offer (the human touch, flexibility, improvisation, creativity…..) is being taken out of the picture:  the opportunity to create that emotional bond is sacrified for efficiency.

At the same time, today, I have not been able to do much today (back is playing up) and so I spent some time re-reading an old book (published in 1999) and called “Market Leadership Strategies for Service Companies”.  As I have spent the bulk of my life working in, delivering and advising companies with a heavy service orientation the following passages speak to me and I want to share them with you:

Employees are not the problem, management is the problem

” Over-engineered employees desperately need to once again pursue the most personally satisfying work goal: doing things that make a difference in the eyes of customers.  Employees intuitively know that their core mission should be to provide the kind of help to customers that is truly needed …..Their company’s seeming indifference to being perceived by customers as unique frustrates them……..The net effect is that millions of employees feel robotic in their daily execution of quality, cycle time reduction, re-engineering and a host of other operational activities that perpetuate rather than improve the company….”

Employees are incredibly important and yet misunderstood, under-utilized and over-structured

“Employees are often the most misunderstood, underutilized, and over-structured assets of a service companies.  But next to customers they are the second most valuable asset that companies have.  The problem lies in the perception of the role that employees play in the customer experience.  Many service companies view their employees simply as part of a process that produces an end output – a physical product to be delivered to a customer.  If a customer’s primary focus is on functional performance of the physical product, the employees generally do not need to be involved with the customer experience.  But with services the situation is different.  In fact, in service companies the employees are very involved in the customer’s experience.”

Big mistake: dehumanizing people all in the mistaken (manufacturing) view of quality

” The mistake made by well meaning and well schooled managers is to dehumanize their people – all in the name of quality control.  Service managers attempt to make employees interchangeable.  Although industrialising the service may be important and even necessary, taking the “performers” out of the equation leads to a neutered, indistinguishable experience for customers. ”

Product and quality through people – not by replacing them with self-service technology, standard processes and scripts

“Productivity and quality improvement come from having people involved with customers – people who want the responsibility, can manage themselves, respond well to pressure from customers, and who are highly motivated through skills, job opportunities and pay advancements.”

My conclusion, my interpretation

People – customers, employees, contractors, suppliers, partners matter.  In fact they are critical to business success in service intensive operations and industries.  If you are worthy and you have the know how you can tap into the very best of what they can offer: energy, enthusiasm, passion, creativity, flexibility, discipline, intelligence, wisdom.  And that in itself is ultimately the source of competitive advantage, ongoing renewal, new product development, great customer experience, growth and profitability.

Yet as a very wise French teacher told me when I was about 10 years old: “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink”.  I believe that is the case with many companies, many CEOs and many management teams.  If they do not value their employees, you cannot make them value them.  Which means the door is wide open to those that get the message and are willing to blaze the trail. For example, John Lewis – who recently delivered a great set or financial results when many other retailers are struggling and blaming the weather.

Self service is not an easy fix or why I love Kylie

Yesterday I read an interesting article on self service (well worth reading) and this got me thinking about my recent experience with the Home Delivery Network, a parcel delivery firm that operates in the UK.

One day I was handed this card by wife.  She told me that it looked like a parcel had come for me and as no-one had been home the driver had not been able to deliver the parcel.  The first thing I noticed was that the card had not been completed and so I was not able to tell:

  • who the parcel was for as there are five of us living at this address;
  • when the delivery firm had attempted to deliver it and failed;
  • what had actually happened to the parcel –  taken back to the depot or left with a neighbour etc.

What I did notice was 8 digit parcel ID and the instruction to look at the back of the card for contact details.  Reading the back it became clear that I was being urged to go to the website.  I did exactly that and entered both the parcel ID and my postcode.  The website responded with the following message: “Your parcel(s) cannot be rescheduled for delivery, please contact customer services on 0871 977 0800”.  Just to make sure that I had not made an error, I had a second go at entering the parcel ID and postcode and found that I got the same message.

So I called the number and found that straight away (no waiting) the IVR kicked in and once I had entered the parcel ID it spelt out when I could get the parcel delivered.   As it was a Tuesday, I requested delivery on the Thursday and left my home number so that delivery firm could ring me back if there was an issue.    At this point I was happy with the experience as it had been easy to schedule a delivery.

Thursday arrived and departed: we did not get the parcel delivered and we did not get a phone call to let us know that there was an issue.  So I contacted customer services (the IVR) and proceeded to listen to the option and select another date for delivery.  That date came and went: no delivery, no phone call.  Then I made a third attempt and met the same fate.

At this point I became rather frustrated even angry.  Why?  Because I wanted to get my hands on the parcel and I could not.  Every time I dialled the customer services number I found myself faced with the IVR which spelled out the dates when I could reschedule delivery.  I was wondering: how do I get through to a human being who can help me with my problem?

Then I made another attempt to contact customer services.  This time I listened to the IVR and did not opt for any of the delivery dates and found that right at the end I was given an option to speak to a human being.  I selected that option and found myself talking to Kylie.   She greeted me warmly, took my details, looked at her system and was able to tell me that the parcel was addressed to (my wife) and sent by Republic (the clothes retailer).

Kylie also told me that the delivery drivers handheld had failed and so he had not been able to upload the information into the system.  As a result I had not been able to find and reschedule the delivery of the parcel.  Then she went on to tell me that the notes on her system were telling her that the parcel had actually been delivered the very first time.  And clearly that might explain why I had a lack of success in getting the parcel delivered!

When I told Kylie that my wife and I had not received that parcel (despite what her systems said) Kylie went on to clearly explain what I need to do.   She was great and she completely changed my mood and my attitude: she took away my frustration because she had shed light on my situation and provided me with a clear path that I needed to follow to close the matter out.  Above all she had a friendly, helpful disposition throughout our conversation: she made me feel that she was on my side.

So here is my take on self-service technology:

Your self-service technology is only as good as the people, processes, technology and data that sits behind your self-service technology

If you consider my experience, you find that the driver left the card behind even though he had delivered the parcel according to Kylie.  Second, the delivery driver did not fill in the data fields in the card: either he should have filled in the data fields or the data fields should not be there.  Third, his handheld failed to update the data into the delivery tracking system.  Fourth, the IVR allowed me to schedule a delivery even though there was no parcel to be delivered as it had already been delivered.

Give customers an incentive to use the self-service technology: make their life quicker and easier

At first I jumped at the idea of rescheduling the parcel delivery through a website.  Why?  Because, in the past I have had to make a number of calls and/or wait a long time to have delivery depots answer my calls, find my parcel on their system and then reschedule a delivery.  Even when the website did not work, I was happy to use the IVR to schedule the delivery as it was quick and easy.

Give customers an easy way to bypass the self-service technology

It is necessary to give customers an easy to find option to bypass the self-service technology.  Why? Because the self-service technology can fail and does fail as it did in my case where neither the web nor the IVR was able to tell me that there was no parcel left to deliver or to deliver that parcel.  In my case, I made four failed contacts with the delivery firm before I was able to figure out how to get through to a helpful human being – a customer services agent called Kylie.

Also because not all customers can or want to use self-service technology.  A case in point is the UK supermarkets replacing cashiers with self-service tills where the customer has to do the work of the cashier.  I am in that segment of people who do not agree to the proposition that I should do the work of the supermarkets especially as the two times I have made the effort the process has not worked and I have had to wait for one of the supermarket staff to come over and sort out the issues.

The more you replace human-human interactions with self-service technology the more important human beings become

Why?  Because human beings are usually the best at dealing with and sorting out the problems that you create for your customers through the introduction of self-service technology.  This is where Kylie was great: she simply defused by frustration and anger by listening to me, getting where I was at and then helping me through to the solution.

Whilst self-service technologies can improve the functional experience it tends to be at the cost of the emotional experience

At a recent conference I heard several female customers mention that whilst they appreciated the ease and convenience of banking electronically with First Direct they did not feel any emotional bond with First Direct because they never spoke with a human being.   This points to a truth: whilst technology can make life easier it rarely makes human beings feel acknowledged, appreciated, respected, valued.  This is why I love Kylie:  she made me feel all those things when the self-service technology had left me feeling insignificant, neglected and helpless.