Taking the 'Mystique' out of Mystery Shopping
By Brian Hamill
Mystery shopping is an established research technique. However, in today’s world its application is no longer confined to its historical base – the retail sector. There are many examples where this useful tool can supplement customer feedback.
Business sectors including financial services, hotel and catering, automotive, and travel and tourism now regularly use mystery shoppers to monitor service levels.
So how exactly does mystery shopping work? An assessment of customer service is made by interviewers who are given a scenario, items to purchase or questions to ask. The “customer” then completes an evaluation form based on their experience and observations of the service encounter.
This measurement technique allows organisations to monitor standards and identify areas for improvement, which can be both service and product related (for instance, in the case of a hotel room).
Questions that are frequently answered using this technique are:
- What level of service are my staff providing?
- How does service performance vary across my branches and departments?
- How well do my staff know and understand the products/services we offer?
- How effective are our recent training and engagement initiatives?
- To what level are my staff empowered to solve customer problems?
- Which areas of the operation do I need to concentrate resources on?
- How do I compare with my competitors?
The real benefit of conducting mystery shopping is that it provides detailed information relating to those “moments of truth”, i.e. how individual customers are treated. From this feedback, managers are able to gauge the effectiveness of recent training initiatives, identify areas which require additional resources and have a measure of service performance.
Staff motivation, engagement and recognition have important roles to play in mystery shopping. The most successful programmes are those which are linked to a meaningful reward and recognition programme. By building a well-communicated series of awards into the programme, organisations can motivate employees to perform to established expectations.
The philosophy behind mystery shopping research should be one of rewarding excellent performance rather than punishing poor. It is important that the benefits of the programme are communicated to all staff (both Head Office and Unit level). This will help ensure support is forthcoming from staff rather than any misperceptions being formed of a spying exercise.
However, mystery shopping as a research technique needs to be handled quite carefully; it should be designed and conducted in ways which avoid unreasonably wasting the time and money of the participants concerned. To this end, adherence to the Market Research Society Code of Conduct is necessary in order to conduct studies in this area professionally.
Observation as a research technique is a very powerful tool, which can be brought to bear in mystery shopping research. Depending on the type of project, alert shoppers should record not only the results of the ‘what happened’ scenarios but also information of a more qualitative nature. The details surrounding the service encounter and feelings of the shopper help bring the results to life.
Effective communication though lies at the heart of successful mystery shopping – both prior to the research commencing and once it has been completed. Involving the staff in the development of solutions following the feedback of results aids future service improvements.
MSB believes that good service audit research, sensitively applied, has a great deal to offer. For this reason we have focused upon bringing interpretative rigour and depth of analysis into the field of service auditing. We have spent time thinking about the reasons why clients ask us to audit their service performance. What answers are they looking for? Very often they are thinking well beyond the service delivery ‘moment of truth’ to underlying issues such as training, empowerment, motivation, engagement and recognition.
MSB’s Market Research Society membership status ensures that our mystery shopping service always provides an objective audit of what is happening on the front line. If your organisation is interested in finding out more about MSB mystery shopping and the clients we serve, please get in touch.
This article was written by MSB Joint Managing Director, Brian Hamill.
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