How mystery shopping programs can boost your brand and your bottom line
Written by David Rich
Beyond customer service
Editor’s note: David Rich is president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association and president of ICC/Decision Services, a Wayne, N.J., mystery shopping firm.
In an age in which consumer markets are becoming increasingly powerful, continually assessing how well your company is fulfilling consumer expectations of your brand is no longer a luxury relegated to the realm of big corporations. It’s a necessity that can ensure success for even the smallest of retail operations. And failing to implement this kind of evaluation can mean an untimely death to your business.
While it’s easy to believe this type of assessment can be conducted under the umbrella of an in-house marketing or quality-assurance department, the truth is such perspectives often are skewed according to a number of factors, including personal bias, demographic alignment with your brand or product, and the simple fact that employees are not customers and therefore do not share the same perspective. Likewise, customer surveys of any type (online, mail, in-store), while an often revealing and helpful practice, tend to deliver subjective results based on an individual’s general interpretation of his or her experience as “good” or “bad.”
So just how do you obtain an accurate assessment of how well you’re delivering on your brand’s promise? And how do you evaluate the less tangible elements of your brand standards - the ones that are hard to quantify numerically but are so vital to the overall look and feel you have designed?
Enter the mystery shopper. Sometimes stereotyped as a subjective and slightly campy approach to evaluating employees’ delivery of customer service (think trench coats, wigs and dark sunglasses), mystery shoppers actually embody the balance between employee and customer and, if used correctly, mystery shopper programs can provide an insightful and accurate means of measuring both tangible and intangible elements of your brand. Furthermore, the highly structured, specific feedback you receive from such a program can prove to be a valuable management tool, serving to continually build your brand, inform and reinforce training, communications and sales strategies, motivate staff, increase your competitive intelligence and, ultimately, ensure absolute consistency in every area of your operations.
In other words, if you’re not using a mystery shopper program - or you’re not using the one you’ve got to its full advantage - you could be overlooking a powerful competitive weapon.
Build your brand
Think about your last restaurant meal. Chances are you remember what you ate, who you were with and whether or not your server was pleasant. And if your service was slow or less than satisfactory, you probably remember that too. (In fact, you’re more likely to remember bad service than good.) But do you remember how long it took for the host or hostess to seat you, or how many minutes it took for bread or water to arrive at your table? For that matter, how long did it take for your server to greet you? If you ordered hot food, was your plate also warm? Were serving sizes consistent with the restaurant’s standards? Were your beverages refilled at appropriate intervals? Did your server check on you the requisite number of times? Just how did you decide whether your experience was good or bad? And just what elements constitute one or the other?
If you’re a typical consumer, you probably can’t answer very many of these questions, nor should you have to. After all, you’re there to enjoy the overall dining experience not to dissect it. It goes without saying, then, that your assessment of that experience will be based primarily on two general factors: past experience with the brand and expectations developed as a result of those experiences. And if your experience met or exceeded these potentially arbitrary expectations, you’d probably rate it as “good” regardless of whether or not specific standards were actually fulfilled.
Now think about the difference between a typical customer’s assessment and that of a mystery shopper. Unlike a typical customer, a trained mystery shopper will have in hand a detailed list of expectations based specifically on the standards and goals of that particular brand. And where a normal consumer might not notice the particular details of the experience, such as the time it takes to receive seating or obtain service, whether background music is switched on and playing at the correct volume or whether the size of a meal portion is correct, a mystery shopper will note these things and more in detail, painting an accurate and thorough picture of just how well your operation is performing when you aren’t there.
After all, consumers come back when they know they can count on receiving the same quality, service and product every time - no matter where they are. It’s as simple as that. And the companies that master this concept are the companies most likely to top sales within their niche.
Take Starbucks, for example. No matter which city or store they’re in, customers know precisely what to expect - not simply in terms of service, but in terms of overall experience. Each store’s product, design, atmosphere, décor and service is so predictable that it becomes intuitive; as a result, consumer behavior and response can also be accurately predicted - making it even easier to design promotions, incentives and products that will immediately boost sales.
How do Starbucks and other similarly successful businesses achieve this kind of consistency - and enjoy greater returns as a result? By identifying and statistically quantifying every conceivable element of the overall consumer experience - and then continually analyzing just how consistently those elements are delivered.
What’s the difference between a store that offers customers an in-store charge card at checkout every time and one that makes the same offer just 20 percent of the time? An annual sales increase of $90,000 per store, according to the experience of one national clothing retailer.
How did they make such a discovery? By using a mystery shopper program to provide continual assessment of their operations. And when analysis revealed that the majority of employees weren’t offering a charge card at the point of sale (something they were trained to do), the mystery shopper reports provided valuable statistics on the frequency of such offers. They also served as a valuable benchmark for improving this particular aspect of in-store service - yielding such a substantial ROI in the process that the mystery shopper program didn’t just become self-funding, it became an integral part of the retailer’s training and growth strategy.
In this instance - as in so many others - mystery shoppers combined the interests and objectives of the retailer with the eyes and perspective of the target consumer, accumulating statistically quantifiable data about sales performance and potential in the process - data that could then be used to reinforce expectations and training strategies at all levels.
Clarifying employee expectations and creating reward and incentive schemes go hand in hand with increasing sales - and mystery shopper programs are a perfect vehicle for combining these objectives.
The question of whether or not to inform employees of a mystery shopper program is up for debate, but informing employees of such a program (one common practice is to do this after the first mystery shop has been completed) yields all kinds of opportunities to reinforce training and standards. Mystery shopper programs can also provide management staff with a means of clarifying expectations in such a way that employees are not judged in subjective terms (like good, bad or average) but instead are assessed in terms of whether employees individually or collectively fulfilled particular standards for service and performance.
Likewise, the same data can be tied to incentive and reward programs as a means of fostering a culture based on sales and quantifiable performance (for instance either you built the display or you didn’t; you greeted an incoming customer or you didn’t). After all, in the words of Tom Peters, “What gets measured gets done.” And if an employee has a clear list of the standards they’re expected to meet - and they know they’re being measured against them - the likelihood of those standards being consistently fulfilled increases dramatically. And so does your bottom line.
Further proof that the scope and advantage of mystery shopper programs extends well beyond that of a perfunctory customer service evaluation is their effectiveness as a tool for conducting competitive audits - and for building a body of competitive intelligence that can be used to inform your own product, staffing and service-based decisions as well as long-term strategic development.
Less well-publicized than most aspects of a mystery shopper program, competitive audits (sending mystery shoppers to assess various aspects of a competing brand or store) provide an opportunity for you to observe, test and analyze the operations and performance of those competing for your market share. In this case, mystery shoppers offer you a consumer-based perspective through the mind of a trained market researcher.
As with using a mystery shopper within your own operations, the resulting data can be used as a benchmark against your own brand experience. It can also reveal areas of quality, service or performance that fall short in comparison, providing yet more quantifiable data from which to generate additional training or redesign existing employee education.
Identify patterns and trends
Delineating strengths and weaknesses in contrast with your competition is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the change potential offered by a mystery shopper program. Obviously, any assessment of employee performance will also identify possible problems, concerns or oversights in a variety of important arenas, including ensuring the fair and equal treatment of customers regardless of race, gender or appearance, and the competent handling of product quality issues, questions and complaints.
Beyond this list, however, mystery shopper programs are a valuable means of creating - and maintaining - an on-site record of failures and achievements such that patterns and trends can be quickly and easily identified and changes can be implemented as necessary. These trends run the gamut from very basic to more complicated issues like employee-customer interaction, manager-employee interaction, the frequency of upselling (remember the in-store charge account case?) or the regularity with which menus, signage or displays are refreshed or updated.
And while nobody wants to entertain the prospect of a lawsuit, simply ensuring that a store is free from obstacles, the lights are on in the parking lot, and sanitary conditions are maintained in store restrooms can pay dividends in averting litigious action - not to mention unwanted publicity. Similarly, mystery shoppers are also an effective tool for reducing product theft and measuring the effectiveness of in-store security systems.
Support and quantify
Clearly, the influence of a mystery shopper program can extend into almost every facet of your business, offering a sound analysis of best practices and reliable data on which you can continually build and expand your brand. Mystery shopper programs are both an invaluable source of insight into the effectiveness of your current operations and into the potential for future changes and improvements. They can also be used as a means of testing those changes as well as evaluating the practices of your competition.
Strategically, the information collected through the consistent use of a mystery shopper program can shed light on vitally important weaknesses, strengths, patterns and trends across all strata of your operations, providing data to support and quantify decisions that may otherwise be based on intangible evidence.
In other words, consistent implementation of a mystery shopper program within a sales- and service-oriented culture can translate into revenue growth substantial enough that such a program will, ultimately, pay for itself in dividends.