BEHIND “MYSTERY SHOPPING”:  The Mystery Partially Revealed

“Mystery Shopping”(1) is a concept that has evolved over recent decades both in Australia and abroad as a key tool in facilitating enhanced business performance and in particular improved trading.  Central to most programs is a concern with “Customer Service”.  Variable levels of customer service have been established to rank highly with differential pricing as key determinants in realising sales.

Simply expressed – good customer service translates to prospects of increased sales and enhanced profitability.

“While your company may initially bring customers through your door with advertising, promotions or other forms of messaging, the success of your business inevitably falls squarely on the shoulders of those who directly interact with your customers every day”.
(Bestmark Inc. 2009)


MYSTERY SHOPPING – A “STEPPING STONE” TO ENHANCED BUSINESS PERFORMANCE

Business performance is critical to longevity in the highly competitive world of business.  To secure that competitive edge it is essential that businesses, inter alia,

  • Understand the level of customer service exhibited by their employees.
  • Understand the level of customer service exhibited by their direct competitors.
  • Understand relative pricing regimes in their specific sector.
  • Effectively manage their staff.
  • Evaluate business image and branding.
  • Respond in a proactive and timely manner to the emergent firm and industry portrait.

A typical mystery shopping experience is recorded as follows:

“As I was listening to Caitlin talk to two young men ahead of us, they remarked how polite she was.  She replied that they get “mystery shopped” and that a positive report is critical to the firm’s performance bonus system”. 

“I have to mention Kelly, a third employee, who stood behind the counter in the corner of the store immersed in conversation with her apparent boyfriend for most of our visit”.

Two employees exhibiting two completely different behaviours and impressions; both reported by mystery shoppers employed to evaluate customer service and input into the firm’s performance management system.

Bottom line performance can be influenced by many factors, so quantifying the financial return on an investment in an initiative such as a “Mystery Shopping” program can be difficult.  Indeed there is little readily produced quantifiable data.  The massive investment in “Mystery Shopping” both locally and internationally, however, attests to business sector confidence in it as a tool to enhanced business performance.

RESEARCH LINKS, RIGOURS AND OBJECTIVITY

Mystery shopping programs have evolved with various levels of underpinning rigour.  The more rigorous, such as that developed and administered by OOPS(2)  have a clear research context(3).  They provide a research base for sales, marketing and organisational development/management; amongst others.

Successful mystery shopping programs require a rigorous approach, and are typified by a number of core ingredients.  These include, namely:

  • A comprehensive brief developed in partnership by the Client and the Service Provider.  (There must be clear understanding of data requirements, the intended use and the data collection timeframe.)
  • A pool of staff who are reliable, present “anonymously” in an outlet/venue, follow instructions and are professional.
  • A professionally compiled report (The report should present data gathered, independent observations and identify any possible management implications).
  • A structured briefing/debriefing client delivery forum.

Customer service opinions are typically subjective.  Customer experience measurement should, however, inherently include objective experience through Mystery Shopper programs.  That is, they must be calibrated to address the inherently subjective, emotion influenced nature of customer feedback.

MYSTERY SHOPPING “SHADOW”

“Mystery Shopping” programs are not without flaw.  Despite the fact that many businesses spend thousands of dollars annually on such research, many programs fail or “limp along” year after year, perennially under-performing against expectations.

Often quoted complaints include:

  • Disputed findings by employees and managers.
  • Questioning of Mystery Shoppers’ skills and credibility.
  • Lack of timeliness in response.
  • Program not evolving with latest customer trends.

CONCLUSION

“Mystery Shopping” is an important tool that has significant potential to contribute, on balance, to enhanced business performance.  It does, however, need to be rigorously perused and carefully calibrated if its true value as an organisational research and development tool is to be optimised.

Michelle Pascoe is the Managing Director of O.O.P.S. Pty Ltd a Research, Data Analysis and Training firm, established in 1994.  Over the past decade OOPS has created a niche in the Hospitality industry - “mystery shopping”  providing Insight Reports, Trends Analysis and Competitor Analysis.

For more information visit http://www.oops.net.au or contact Michelle on 0411 146 450.

(1) Mystery Shopping generally involves the engagement of specialist firms to conduct research of the client’s
business. This research typically takes the form of mystery shoppers posing s customers of the client’s business
and engaging in typical customer activities.

The mystery shopper reports on the experience as directed by the client to the Mystery Shopping Firm, which gathers the data and supplies it to the client.

(2) OOPS (1994) is an established training and marketing firm with a specialisation in Mystery Shopping in the Hospitality Industry.

(3) Involves “systematic investigation”