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Mystery Shopping Programmes: Why they don't work and what to do instead

5 March 2012

In recent months we’ve had the opportunity to talk to over a hundred retail executives about their mystery shopping programmes. The majority believe that the return on investment is poor but they continue to invest in them due to a perceived lack of alternatives.

Here are the common themes arising from our discussions:
  • The primary purpose of mystery shopping is to monitor customer service levels and ensure that company standards and policies are adhered to.
  • Mystery shopping is a marketing initiative and in most cases forms part of a wider ‘Voice of Customer’ programme.

So far so good, but here’s the problem:
  • Return on investment is hard to calculate and it’s likely to be very poor.
  • No matter how many mystery shops occur, the customer experience doesn’t improve.

Dig a little deeper into the above points and the truth about mystery shopping is that it’s a useless tool for improving the customer experience.

Why is mystery shopping so ineffective?

The problem is in the information that’s collected and how it’s dealt with.

Firstly there isn’t enough data – most businesses that have mystery shopping programmes carry out one shop per store per month or even less frequently.

Secondly it’s very difficult to get real information, as the mystery shoppers have a built in negative bias. The nature of the interaction with store staff is artificial as the shoppers are paid to be critical and look for issues that a normal customer might not notice. Furthermore, the style of questions asked by mystery shoppers give clues to store staff which in turn produces an equally unnatural and artificial response from them.

Thirdly mystery shopping programmes are usually run by the marketing department as an audit exercise looking for flaws in a store’s performance. This often means that the information provided is skewed toward weeding out poor performance rather building on good performance, and there is a significant delay before store managers receive the feedback.

So, given that the overall concept – to learn about the customer experience – is vitally important, and mystery shopping is so ineffective, what’s the alternative?

An alternative to mystery shopping

What if every customer was a potential mystery shopper? What would happen if you provided store managers with real-time access to unfiltered information from real customers? What if the store manager could see what his or her customers really think on a daily basis? What if you coached the store manager to use customer feedback to set goals that drive improvements in the customer experience?

The collective answer to these questions is: sustainable improvements in the customer experience, fast.

Our clients’ experience proves the combination of continuous customer feedback and goal-setting is a potent alternative to mystery shopping. This approach can be used to create an automated feedback and response cycle whereby:

  • Store managers are able to do something about the results by turning the customer feedback into actionable tasks to improve the overall customer experience.
  • Real-time data concerning the customer journey provides the focal point for the ‘daily huddle’ with store staff.
  • Store managers can coach average performers to adopt best practice behaviours and improve their performance.
  • Providing store staff with real customer feedback – good and bad – on a daily basis creates a ‘no excuses’ attitude and is a powerful motivator to improve the customer experience.

If you would like to know more about our alternative to mystery shopping and learn how it could be applied in your company then contact us today.

Alternatively you could read our blog post Maze creates customer value to see how Maze is playing a key role at STARK in driving ‘Best Customer Service’ and creating value through customer loyalty.