The Not-So-Mysterious Method of Enhancing Customer Service

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It was summer, and I was visiting my friend and former college roommate, Toni, in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Her parents own a local store for home schooling. During my stay, her mom said she was curious how employees interacted with their customers and how the overall shopping experience was. Since I traveled all the way from Texas and wouldn’t be recognized, I was tasked with being a mystery shopper to scope out the store.

I walked inside, nervous about my mission at hand. Would the employees suspect I was secretly compiling information on my entire buying process? The short answer is no. They had no idea who I was.

Even though I felt like James Bond on an important mission, I must admit; I would make a terrible spy. Spies are cool, calm and collected. I, on the other hand, was awkward. I walked straight to the back of the store, grabbed the cheapest book I could find, paid as quickly as possible and left.

When I got back inside the car, Toni’s mother excitedly asked me what happened and wanted all the juicy details. The only problem was, I was so flustered, I could barely remember what happened. It was a whirlwind, and I know it was probably a little disappointing to have such little feedback. After all, Toni’s mom was obviously curious about the customer service aspect of her business. Then again, I’m not a trained professional.

Using a professional mystery shopper to gain a better understanding about how your employees interact with your customers is a practical and business-savvy idea.

“Mystery shoppers are designed to document the experiences of customers,” said Crystal Kendrick, president of The Voice of Your Customer, a company that assists clients to penetrate niche markets using a variety of techniques, including secret shoppers, located in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I use customer as a generic term, because it can really be the experience of an employee, [an inverstor] or anyone who is working with your organization.”

Kevin Crisafulli, director of North American Operations at HS Brands, a company that offers mystery shopping services and loss prevention solutions, located in Taunton, Massachusetts, has another way of explaining mystery shoppers.

“A mystery shopper is an every day consumer who gets paid, either directly, in reimbursements for products or services or both, to provide feedback on their experience,” he said. “The feedback is typically based on operational standards and customer service at a specific location and under specific circumstances.”

Mystery shoppers offer a variety of services. If you want to make sure your staff is answering the phone politely and effectively, you can hire a mystery shopper to rate and critique a phone call. If you want to know how your technicians are performing during the oil change process, a mystery shopper can report back their findings. Basically, a mystery shopper can check out any service you offer at your store.

Though most businesses use mystery shoppers to get a better understanding of how well they do at customer service, you can use it for something else, as well.

“You can also use secret shopping to understand your competition,” Kendrick said. “We’ve done this on numerous occasions where we go in, assess the competition and report back to our client. We’ll look at pricing, service, time, convenience of location, etc. One of our clients asked us to find out why more women were going to their competition. So, we went over there and checked it out. Well, it didn’t look like a garage; it looked like a waiting room. It had Wi-Fi, electrical outlets and a coffee machine. Our client’s store looked like a garage, and the ladies were waiting in the cold.”

If the idea of hiring someone to mystery shop for you sounds expensive, it’s actually a justifiable expense.

“There’s usually a set price per visit, but that’s going to depend on what the shopper is asked to do while they’re on the site,” said Elaine Buxton, president of Confero, a Cary, North Carolina, customer experience consultancy business that serves clients across North America. “There are a number of different reports offered, so companies that decide to use mystery shoppers can compare locations, teams and questions to see if there are areas where they’re doing well and areas of challenge they might want to focus on. So, the cost can vary, depending on how complicated all of that is. It can probably be  $40-$75 per visit, plus the cost of the services performed (such as the oil change, tire rotation, etc.). Also, there’s usually some kind of setup cost, and that would be associated with you consulting with a company that offers mystery shopping to determine what’s supposed to happen in front of a customer, how certain processes are supposed to go, things like that.”

One important detail to note is for all residents in the state of Nevada.

“It’s important to know that in the state of Nevada, you have to be working under the direction of a private investigator (PI) to conduct any mystery shopping,” Buxton said. “If you don’t, you could be fined significantly.”

Crisafulli makes another important note about mystery shopping in Nevada.

“We are one of the few mystery shop companies licensed to perform mystery shops in Nevada,” he said. “Not only must the shopper work with a mystery shopping provider that has a PI license, but the shoppers themselves must carry a Sheriff’s card. The fine for performing an illegal mystery shop in Nevada is $2,500, and the fine is assessed to both the shopper and the mystery shop provider.”

Though I am no mystery shopping connoisseur, there are companies out there that are. These companies can help you set up your questionnaire, speak with you on your wants and needs and provide you with a professional mystery shopper.

“There are a lot of mystery shopping companies out there,” Crisafulli said. “The best place to start is with the Mystery Shopping Provider Association (MSPA) at www.mysteryshop.org. MSPA hosts a directory of legitimate and experienced mystery shop providers, which can help point you in the right direction. Businesses should look for a company that best suits their needs, as not all mystery shops are created equal. Look for an MSP that has experience in your industry and understands what your challenges and goals may be. Also, take a look as to what you will receive in terms of reporting from the MSP, and make sure they will meet your needs. Your mystery shoppers are only as good as the data you receive and what you do with it.”

As Crisafulli mentioned, having the data from the mystery shopper you hire is one thing, but acting on their suggestions is another.

“Just paying for a mystery shopper report will get you nothing, because if you’re not going to use the results to actually drive some change, the program doesn’t have value,” Buxton said. “The time to start a program is when you’re ready to hear the information and really take it to heart and make the changes you need to make.”

Using a mystery shopper to gather data on the customer experience is a valuable tool to enhance customer service and make sure your business is being run the way you have designed it. Though I’ll never be a super sleuth like James Bond, hiring a trained professional to mystery shop for you will only benefit your business.

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