Shhh, It’s a Secret — How Mystery Shoppers Help Improve Customer Service

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

It’s a Tuesday night at a posh restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A couple sits at a table, noshing on appetizers and sipping cabernet. Every few minutes, the woman discreetly taps on her phone under the table. No, she’s not texting her friends about her dinner date (that’ll happen later). Instead, she’s taking intricate notes about the dining experience, noting everything from the quality of the food to the exact times the waiter refilled their water glasses.

Welcome to the world of mystery shopping, in which businesses hire customers to spy on them.

Using various companies that employ shoppers who are reimbursed for purchases after filing reports, the businesses gain valuable feedback about the quality of their products and customer service. Invented in the 1940s during the first big boom in retail, mystery shopping has evolved into an industry that incorporates cutting-edge technology such as cloud computing, advanced data analysis, and geo-fencing.

Mystery shopping projects can be broad or targeted, but businesses often approach firms with specific goals in mind. “They can determine certain aspects of how and what they want to measure,” says Dan Denston, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA).

For example, a store may have a policy that employees must answer phone calls with a specific greeting  — mystery shoppers would call to verify that the protocol is being followed. Or, a manufacturer may want to know how its products are being positioned and priced in third-party stores — mystery shoppers would be deployed to look and snap photos.

“There are a lot of companies that will focus on an area that they know they need quite a bit of improvement,” says Jack Welchin, director of sales and business development for Secret Shopper.

The shoppers, who are selected for gigs through online applications, file reports to editors at the mystery shopping firm — these reports could be anything from simple questionnaires to detailed essays, depending on the client’s needs. The editors make sure all the information has been provided, compile the data, and give the business grades and analysis in specified categories. (Shoppers are also given scores based on the quality of their work. Higher scores result in more high-profile gigs in the future, such as reviewing upscale restaurants and stores.)

Secret Shopper has seen how the customer feedback has helped businesses steadily improve. Not only does the data pinpoint exactly how the company is faring in specific areas, but businesses can boost performance with incentives — say, a gift card or bonus — for employees who receive high scores from mystery shoppers. (Names and physical descriptions must be included in reports.)

“For the companies that have very clear objectives, we have seen their scores consistently go up over three or four years,” says Welchin.

In recent years, firms such as Secret Shopper have been taking advantage of technology to streamline the process of gathering and submitting data. Smartphones have made it easier for customers to snap and upload photos. Geo-fencing can track shoppers to make sure they are at the correct location. And mobile and cloud-based apps allow shoppers to file reports from anywhere. “It has really expedited the process,” says Welchin.

As the analysis of big data improves, mystery shopping firms will be able to provide even more targeted reports for companies. Like nearly every industry, technology is transforming the (hidden) face of mystery shopping. The areas that it covers — namely sales and customer service — are changing as well. But one big factor at the center of the industry will always remain the same: the human element.

“How you interact with the client, customer, the reporting company, or the provider who is collecting data — that will change,” says Denston. “But the personal aspect of mystery shopping, that is always going to be there.”

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