Undercover customers, mystery shoppers and other spy-types

My mother is retired, but very active and inquisitive, so she’s always looking for something to do. A friend referred her to a  mystery shopper agency, which was all too glad to recruit this youthful looking, elegant, well spoken lady for its pool of undercover assessors of  retailers and services. She duly signed an agreement in principle, exchanged contacts, and went on with her life. A couple of months later, at around 4 PM, she received a call from the agency asking if she could urgently pop over to the hypermarket across town (before 7 was the requirement) purchase something, and report on her experience by midnight.

My mother, who was otherwise engaged, politely declined. She felt sorry though, imaging that something untoward had happened to require such last minute arrangement.  She felt less sorry and in the end annoyed, when the incident was repeated twice or thrice more. She felt that it was somehow cheating the end client to give him a hasty report from an unprepared individual, whose only ability in assessing service levels was common sense, and experience.

Without being quite so drastic, I think she was right. As a marketer for many organizations with customer-facing functions, I would be horrified if the provider of mystery shopper or undercover assessment services would be so superficial. As a client going to a mystery shopping provider my goal, briefly stated, is to improve the quality of my interactions with clients, and see which are the problems areas. I would create a brief for the service, meet with the agency to devise a survey and agree upon what we should investigate and measure, and what information should be included in the final report.

And, as in any type of research activity, I would expect that the relevant part of information would reach the mystery shopper herself, so that when they are visiting my restaurant, store, car-wash or whatever, they know what to look for, and report on. Am I interested in knowing whether the cashier smiled, or whether the shopping baskets were damaged? These are very different sides of the shopping experience, and unless they are reminded what to check  and what to make note of, people may forget or simply disregard something that to me is important, but to them is obvious or unimportant.

I would expect my provider to:

– Create an assesment tool based on my priorities

– Schedule visits across days of the week and times of the day to achieve a representative sample, and make sure that these visits happen (not scramble at the last minute to find people who will buy something and report on it ASAP, thereby skewing the sample).

– Create scenarios (testing a return, a complaint, a pissy customer) as well as straightforward purchases

– Instruct the mystery shoppers about the targets / aspects to be measured

– Brief them about how to report their findings

In an ideal world I would also expect that the mystery shoppers  would receive some training, or at least general guidelines for their activity upon registering with an agency. And I would also expect that the agency would keep track of the expenses these people made, which I will be charged for, and try to instruct the shopper regarding the type and amount of purchase.

Some agencies do that, some don’t. This post is directed at those who don’t. Perhaps you’ll learn. If you don’t, don’t call my mother.


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