When done properly, mystery shopping can be a valuable addition to service measurement efforts

When done properly, mystery shopping can be a valuable addition to service measurement efforts


Written by: Sheldon Dill

Source: quirks.com/articles/a2002/20020108.aspx?searchID=622320894&sort=5&pg=4


There are many marketing professionals who read this magazine who have little knowledge of or experience with mystery shopping. It is no wonder, for there are countless marketing research texts that contain no information about mystery shopping, and the debate still rages if mystery shopping should even be considered a research methodology.

Originally, mystery shopping was used as a tool to uncover dishonest employees. As such, it was immensely disliked by employees.

As our economy shifted from manufacturing to a greater emphasis on service in the 1980s, author Tom Peters focused on the significance of customer service and pushed for increased recognition of its importance. At the same time came the rise of mystery shopping as a tool for improving customer service.

What is mystery shopping?

Mystery shopping is essentially an informational gathering tool. It has three main uses:

With data derived from mystery shopping, companies can establish customer service levels and monitor them, as well as identify poor to excellent customer service. It can also be an effective tool for monitoring competition and accumulating pricing and inventory information. In this article most of the emphasis will be on mystery shopping to identify characteristics about an organization and how it treats its customers.


·         Mystery shopping helps companies retain existing customers, and it is far more cost-effective to retain customers than to attract new ones. It is also an excellent tool for training employees. It can be used as a basis for recognition and rewards.

·         Mystery shopping results are immediate and you have the ability to control when the shoppers will complete the surveys. For example, you can have mystery shops done at a particular time and location with specific employees.


·         Mystery shopping studies are still, for the most part, qualitative research. Whether you do one, five, or even six shops at a specific location, it still has the limitation of providing too little research to form statistically valid assumptions. That can be magnified further when an individual employee might be shopped only once or twice in a given time period and promotions and bonuses might depend on only a handful of shops. It is important to keep in mind that mystery shopping is a source for gathering information, not a means for doing customer satisfaction research.

·         Often the first step in a mystery shopping program is to conduct a baseline study to be used as a point of reference, or yardstick for future mystery shops. Again, one should be cautious when trying to draw comparisons in mystery shops, especially when there may not be enough data to quantify the results.

Objectivity and the quality of shoppers

The shoppers, whether through vendors, independent contractors, or one’s own employees, must be objective and fair. Finding objective shoppers is not as easy as it sounds. I have had to remove shoppers who were biased towards certain employees because those employees reminded shoppers of friends or relatives; in some cases, shoppers did not like a certain company or product.

It is also necessary to train the shoppers properly. This often means going out into the field with them to insure that they have a clear understanding of what is expected from them.

Embarrassment and failure can result if a mystery shopper is “discovered.” It happens even to good shoppers. If not handled quickly, it can adversely taint results and objectives. To help avoid such problems, I carefully meet with all shoppers and review results daily.

The shopper forms should be as free as possible from subjective questions. Instead, there should be a wide variety of yes and no answers. Questions such as, “Did the employee stand?” or “Did the employee ask you for the business?” will give you objective and fair responses. Shopping results should be reviewed as soon as possible to check for objectivity as well as for completeness and clarity.

Should employees be told they are being shopped? This is a very sensitive issue. Many have questioned whether employees should be told that they are being shopped. Advance knowledge may bias survey results. This was best shown in the famous Western Electric Hawthorne Studies.

The Hawthorne Studies were done in the 1920s at the Hawthorne, Ill., plant of the Western Electric Company. There were two test groups experimenting with lighting levels. In one group, lighting levels were adjusted to improve productivity. In the other group, nothing was done. The result was that productivity rose in both groups. After 18 months of analysis it was determined that the high productivity was due in great part to the attention that was paid to workers and not due to the lighting.

On the other hand, if mystery shopping is to have the desired effect, your employees must know what you are doing. They should be told that mystery shoppers will be evaluating them to make sure they are effectively doing their jobs and serving their customers. It is very important that employees buy in to the mystery shop. While it might bias the shopping results by telling employees that they are being shopped, a benefit might be better customer service as they are being shopped.

How is it effective?

To have value as a research tool, mystery shopping needs to be part of an overall sales program to provide rewards for improvement. Those rewards should include training evaluations and financial incentives, after sales goals have been met. Of great importance is that the sales goals are specific and achievable.

The most effective mystery shopping programs are done in conjunction with other research methodologies, whether it is focus groups to gather more qualitative research, or traditional quantitative methodologies, such as telephone or mail surveys, for quantifiable or measurable results.

Done correctly, mystery shopping will help employees with feedback do their jobs better as part of an overall program. They must know that mystery shopping will be fair, objective, and equitable. Employees will learn valuable information about their faults and their skills. They will learn where improvement is necessary and how to make improvements through a specific training program. Both good performances and improvements will be rewarded.

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