Published in Retail

Taking the “Mystery” out of Mystery Shopping

I’ve got an unfortunate truth to share with moms, dads, CEO’s, CX stakeholders, and front-line managers alike. Despite your best efforts at duplicating yourself, no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t be everywhere at once.

In the age of customer-centricity, consistently executing and delivering on your brand promise is one of—if not the—single most critical element of providing a positive customer experience.

There’s an old saying in business that’s another undeniable truth. You cannot manage—let alone improve—what you do not measure. So, it follows that unless you are regularly and objectively measuring the consistency of your brand execution across your business network, it will be very difficult to improve it.

When businesses are small or just starting out, it is feasible for owners and operators to keep a pulse on the day to day operations to ensure their intended customer experience is actually playing out. But as these same businesses grow, increase their number of units, and become more geographically dispersed, this becomes more difficult, more time consuming, and certainly more costly. This presents a problem for companies who care about ensuring their brand promise aligns with their brand reality.

So how can businesses solve this problem during a time when, according to many experts, competing on customer experience is the only source of sustainable competitive advantage? The answer is simple. You must incorporate and leverage the value that mystery shopping provides as a complement to your larger CX (Customer Experience) program.

In my experience, spanning nearly a decade in the CX industry, I’ve seen that mystery shopping is often misunderstood and underutilized as a CX instrument. While a large percentage of companies are using mystery shopping to improve their customer experience, a great deal are not. And I would assert that when properly deployed, mystery shopping is the most effective way to ensure that your brand standards and CX initiatives are being executed consistently across all of your customer channels and touch-points.

What is Mystery Shopping?

In brief, mystery shopping is one of many techniques used to develop an understanding of the customer experience. It involves using “shoppers,” who are either real customers or fit a desired customer profile, to go through an actual product or service experience. Afterwards, these shoppers systematically record the specifics of the interaction, and often make additional measurements or observations regarding the product/service experience.

The problem is that many CX stakeholders, corporate managers, and front-line employees have had different experiences with the methodology—some very positive and some very negative. If you ask them what mystery shopping is, you will likely get several different answers, depending on who you ask.

Some organizations use mystery shopping highly effectively to bring attention to important company standards or initiatives, ensure desired behaviors are being executed regularly, and provide important coaching to and incentivize front-line associates.

Others do not. Organizations that struggle with mystery shopping often misuse the methodology, struggle to get buy-in with important stakeholders, face negative sentiment around the program, and in some cases, damage company culture.

So how can your organization be one of the companies that best leverages mystery shopping to drive important business outcomes and improve your overall customer experience? It starts with a firm understanding of what mystery shopping is and how to effectively deploy the instrument, and maybe even more importantly, the knowledge of what mystery shopping is not.

What Mystery Shopping is NOT

Let’s begin by dispelling a few myths about mystery shopping.

1. Mystery shopping is not a way to “spy” on employees or “catch them doing something wrong.” It might surprise you how many companies use mystery shopping in this manner. Sure, it’s sometimes tempting to leverage the information collected during a mystery shop to punish a specific employee or group of employees—or even worse, in extreme cases, terminate someone for poor performance. In my experience, this is the quickest way to suck the real value out of a mystery shopping program and create negative sentiment around it. When mystery shopping programs are used in this way, front-line associates often become fearful of management’s objectives behind the program. While mystery shop findings can be used to effectively reinforce important customer-facing standards, defensive employees may instead focus on ways to refute or challenge these findings. Business leaders need to resist the urge to use mystery shopping data to target employees, and instead target problem practices. While there may be short-term value in eliminating a problem employee, the long-term effects to company culture can be devastating. And as you know, a bad company culture can eat even the best corporate strategies for lunch.

2. Mystery shopping is not a replacement for voice of the customer. Let’s be clear. In no way is mystery shopping a replacement for direct customer feedback via surveys, social media, complaint hotlines, or other customer listening posts. Whereas transactional customer satisfaction surveys, for example, often focus on the perception or sentiment of a particular product/service interaction, mystery shopping focuses on the specific, objective elements that comprise that interaction. Generally speaking, mystery shopping is most useful for gaining insights that enable an organization to address two key questions about the customer experience:

  • Do we deliver products and services in ways that are consistent with our performance goals, standards, specifications, and/or policies?
  • Do we deliver products and services in ways that are consistent with promises and claims made in advertisements, promotions, and other customer and market communications?

Mystery shopping provides insights about elements of the customer experience that may seem trivial to normal customers but that have an important role in the overall brand experience. Customers usually don’t remember things, such as wait time in line, well enough to give feedback about them. The best organizations use voice of the customer to inform and develop what their brand and service standards are, and then utilize mystery shopping to ensure that those standards are being executed consistently across all of their customer channels.

3. Mystery shopping is not a replacement for internal process audits. Mystery shopping as a CX instrument is most effectively used to monitor compliance to standards, expectations and behaviors that are customer facing. While mystery shopping can certainly be used in an announced, audit type fashion (in these circumstances removing the covert nature of the interaction) it should not be used to replace regular process audits by district managers or other field personnel focused on safety or financial standards. It is important to keep the traditional skill set of a mystery shopper in mind and not overextend that skill set to conduct inspections on high-risk compliance areas such as OSHA, food safety, or financial reporting standards.

How to Effectively Use Mystery Shopping as a CX Instrument

Now that we’ve cleared up a few misconceptions about mystery shopping, I’d like to provide six practical applications for the methodology that will maximize its value as a tool in your CX-practitioner toolkit.

1. Ensure consistent compliance to brand and CX standards. Mystery shopping is most commonly used in this capacity—enabling an organization to monitor compliance with product/service delivery standards and specifications. Here, mystery shopping is used to ensure your intended customer experience is occurring at the front line—all of the time.

2. Allow marketers to examine the gap between promises made through
advertising/sales promotion and actual service delivery.
Simply put, if you promise customers something then you should ensure that it is actually happening. If you say that a pizza will be delivered hot within 30 minutes of ordering, is it? If you promise customers that they can “have it their way,” do your associates execute on this and provide an easy and hassle-free experience once special requests occur? Mystery shopping provides an objective and cost-effective mechanism to ensure these things are happening consistently.

3. Monitor the impact of corporate interventions. Mystery shopping is extremely useful when deployed to monitor the lasting impact of training, performance improvement, or marketing initiatives. For example, if you just rolled out a new product or training program, you might use mystery shopping to conduct a pre/post assessment to show a “lift” in desired behaviors or to ensure that the material is being retained 3 to 6 months down the line.

4. Identify variations on performance. Using mystery shopping to provide longitudinal data can help bring to light key similarities and differences in the customer experience across different points in time. Such variation may occur during different times of the day, week, month, seasonally, or by specific geographical areas. Mystery shopping can help pinpoint these variations and provide insights on how to level them out—such as increasing staffing during peak sales periods.

5. Collect competitive intelligence. This might be application of mystery shopping that is least used and most undervalued. It’s one thing to measure your own performance in a vacuum; it’s entirely different to gather these same insights on key competitors. Used in this fashion, mystery shopping can have a key input into competitive intelligence efforts, identify best practices, and help you compare yourself to key players in your marketplace.

6. Improve sales, customer satisfaction and other business metrics. Mystery shopping is no different than any other CX instrument in that, ultimately, it must improve business outcomes. If organizations use mystery shopping effectively, it can reduce the incidence of negative service experiences and therefore customer churn, and increase customer satisfaction, conversion, sales, and lifetime customer value. Furthermore, companies can use statistical analysis to quantify the impact of a mystery shopping program on these metrics, and communicate those results to senior management and front-line employees to reinforce the value of the program and create greater buy-in.

As a final takeaway, it is important to remember that you shouldn’t use mystery shopping in isolation or as your only means for understanding the customer experience. The best service organizations use an integrated approach, connecting mystery shop programs with other CX initiatives and measurement approaches. In this sense, information from one CX program should be used to inform the other. What’s more, in the highly social, connected world we live in today, the practice of only monitoring compliance in your primary customer channel (for many organizations, their brick and mortar retail establishments) is obsolete. Today, customers interact with your brand across a variety of mediums and capabilities exist take an omnichannel approach to mystery shopping by measuring interactions across all of your customer touch-points—including contact centers, online, via mobile and through social media.

In conclusion, if you are one of the companies not using mystery shopping as a component of your larger customer experience strategy, for whatever reason, I urge you to reconsider. Failing to leverage mystery shopping as an instrument for verifying that your brand and CX initiatives are being executed as intended represents a dangerous “blind spot” that could have costly ramifications for your organization—particularly as it relates to protecting your investments in reducing customer churn and increasing conversion, satisfaction, sales and lifetime customer value.

Did you find this article useful? Learn more about how leading blue chip companies are using mystery shopping effectively in Nick Mercurio’s  webinar Taking the Mystery out of Mystery Shopping.