How to get the most from your mystery shopping provider

How to get the most from your mystery shopping provider

Writteb by Peter Thorwarth


Mystery shopping is being used more than ever before, in the U.S. and abroad. Used properly, it can be a detailed and revealing way to know exactly how customers are treated. In addition, by linking it to performance standards, mystery shopping can contribute a great deal to your quality control efforts.

However, two things are critical to a program’s success:

1) choosing a suitable provider;

2) laying the right foundation in the setup stage.

Choosing a suitable provider

Mystery shopping companies come in all shapes and sizes. Many are honest, experienced, qualified and dedicated to meeting your needs. Unfortunately, some do not have all of those attributes. It’s fairly easy to be sold by the wrong company, a firm that doesn’t really have the right skills or background for your assignment. Here’s how to choose one that will do a good job for you:

1) Find a provider with a strong track record.

It is generally not wise to use a company that has been mystery shopping for less than three years. It takes that long to develop a strong list of proven shoppers. It also takes that long to learn how to write effective surveys and instructions. Those are critical to making sure your results are accurate, actionable and a meaningful reflection of the specific things you want the mystery shopping efforts to measure.

2) Seek out a provider with good references.

Just as you would not give a major mail or telephone survey to an unknown vendor without checking on their references first, it’s important to ask a mystery shopping provider for a list of its customers and some contact names. Make a few phone calls and see what their clients say.

Note: Both the providers and their clients may be reluctant to explain their mystery shopping programs in detail. You should respect this, because they are trying to maintain a professional level of confidentiality and protect internal information, such as the strengths/weakness of the client that the mystery shopping form may reveal.

3) Favor providers with experience in the relevant product/service categories.

Try to find a provider who understands the industry in question, its priorities and issues. This will make a big difference in their efforts to develop and execute a successful program for you.

Keep in mind each provider is somewhat unique. For example, some companies are extremely experienced with restaurant mystery shopping, others are very well-versed in bank mystery shopping, and so on.

A professional and reputable provider will acknowledge whether or not they have the requisite experience to serve you well. When restaurants contact us, we refer them to other firms with more experience in that area. (On such occasions, I consult the MSPA Sourcebook, put out by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association []. You can also consult the annual Quirk’s directory of mystery shopping providers, which begins on page 65 of this issue and is found on

A cautionary note: Like so many other things, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If a company claims it can mystery shop all of the locations in 24 hours and do it for an amazingly low rate, it may just be stretching the truth to get your business. There have been numerous stories over the years of new or small mystery shopping companies that got the big assignment, hung up the phone and then said “How are we going to do this?” If they mention temp services at all, you should be very concerned. Using temp services means the guidelines and priorities will be passed through many hands and most of them will be inexperienced.

Laying the right foundation in the setup stage

1) Open up with your provider.

Once you’ve selected a mystery shopping provider, have them sign a simple non-disclosure agreement and fax it back to you. After they have, you’ll feel more comfortable sharing with them all of the relevant information from your company/your client. This information may include:

location lists;

information about new products, services or policies;

indications of the areas where the company thinks it may be weak (and therefore is trying to measure that weakness).

Tell them your concerns and what needs to be measured. Send them a bullet-point list of issues that you/your client worry about every day. Be as specific as possible, so they can design a survey instrument that addresses those things directly and specifically.

Some examples:

Vague: “We want to know if they explain our product well.”

Specific: “We want to know which of this list of features they mention and which benefits of those features they explain.”

Vague: “We want to know if customers are being acknowledged enough.”

Specific: “We want to know if customers are being greeted every time they come within 20 feet of an employee.”

Vague: “We want to know if customers are getting good service.”

Specific: “We want to know how employees respond when asked about something that seems to be out of stock. How often do they do any of these things they’re trained to do: offer to check the warehouse, call other stores, and give customers a rain check?”

Note: If possible, give the provider a copy of the training materials, so they can see the language that has been used and develop a mystery shopping form that is in sync with the skills that have been trained or emphasized.

2) Location lists.

The provider is going to send people driving to locations, where they will interact with people and then fill out a mystery shopping form. Don’t short-circuit their efforts by sending a location list that is out of date. Track down the best list available. If possible, send it to them as a computer list (in Excel, for example) so they won’t have to spend time typing your locations into their system.

(An unusual twist on this is when clients provide a list that includes stores that haven’t been built yet!)

3) Report considerations.

Explain who will be receiving the results. Are they going just to the corporate offices, or will they be distributed to regional managers, district managers, and even store managers?

If the results are just for certain executives, the provider can focus on formats that deliver a great deal of data in a compact, easy-to-use format like Excel. If you need Word or PowerPoint reports, tell the provider who will see those reports and what issues they want tabulated.

On the other hand, if the results may flow all the way down to the store level, the provider will concentrate on delivering forms that show all of the detail about an individual store visit. Some businesses have location managers post these in the backroom for employees to read. Your provider can create a form that works well for this purpose.

4) Scoring systems.

There are situations where a client wants each report to be scored. This makes it possible to give special attention to the locations/individuals who do very well (or very poorly). If you want your reports to be scored, it is up to you to develop the point assignments. Your provider can certainly help with the execution, but you know which parts of the survey are critical and which are less important. For example, a car dealer might want 50 points out of 100 assigned to the question “Did s/he make an effort to close the sale?” while a hardware/housewares chain might assign just five points to that question.

Read the results

One of the most important ways to get the most from your mystery shopping provider is this: make the time to read and digest the results.

Every businessperson today is wearing at least two hats and time is hard to find. But if you don’t find a way to review and consider the results and then act on them, the mystery shopping program will not accomplish its goals.

When the results come in, look them over and compare the in-store performance with your expectations. Look at any statistics on a question-by-question basis, so you can learn which things are fine and which need attention. Contact your training people and/or use all available communications tools to spread the word about the elements that need to be improved.

As the results are communicated to other parts of the company, keep a positive spin on them. For example, “Our mystery shopping program has confirmed that the stores are clean, that almost everyone is wearing name tags, and 90 percent of customers are being greeted within two minutes. That’s great! However, we must remember that add-on sales are the easiest way to increase per-store sales totals. Remember to help the store and help the customer by suggesting the other items that most customers would purchase at the same time.”

If you only draw attention to the things that are being done poorly, there may be some hard feelings and there will certainly be far less buy-in from the field.

Another way to maximize your use of mystery shopping is to create a follow-up program. Once you have determined, for example, that add-on sales could be much better than they are, work with your mystery shopping provider to create a program that promotes and improves add-on sales. Announce that “Mystery shoppers will be in the stores again next month and every sales associate who mentions two possible add-on items will receive a gift certificate to the movies.” Or reward managers/district managers whose locations improve in key areas.

Working effectively with your mystery shopping provider and keeping a positive spin on the results will move the needle and give you the improved performance that you desire.

Please feel free to call us anytime

1300 88 33 16

Alternatively if you would like us to to give you a call,
simply fill out your details below