When Mystery Shopping Goes Bad: Best Practices to Avoid Common Pitfalls

Despite the fact that many businesses spend thousands of dollars annually on such research, an astonishing number of mystery shopping programs fail outright or limp along year after year, perennially under-performing against expectations.


Companies recite a litany of complaints, including:

  • disputed findings by employees and managers;
  • questioning of mystery shoppers’ skills and credibility;
  • more internal administration than planned;
  • flat trend lines and undifferentiated scores;
  • little or no correlation between mystery shopping results and customer satisfaction ratings;
  • lack of timeliness and responsiveness from mystery shopping vendors; and,
  • difficulty demonstrating return on investment.

There is nothing inherently faulty about the mystery shopping methodology, which is simply a type of observational research. It can and does provide tremendous value when it is designed and executed well.

Here are some best practices to help you avoid these common pitfalls:

Define clear objectives. Considering the high price tag that comes with mystery shopping research, it’s incumbent upon company managers to define their goals in specific and measurable terms.

Keep it simple. In the interest of internal consensus, mystery shopping programs are often designed by committee, which can lead to the program becoming hopelessly complicated and cumbersome. Unrealistic scenarios and long, complex questionnaires are common, creating great frustration for mystery shoppers and program administrators. In such cases the likelihood of shopper exposure is increased and the accuracy of the observations suffers. Simpler designs work better and provide more value.

Hire a vendor that can be a partner. Large companies often employ an excruciating bidding process that rarely identifies the best vendor for their needs. They issue lengthy RFPs for mystery shopping that are meant to weed out the weakest contenders, but by asking bidders to commit to overly detailed and inappropriate specifications they effectively eliminate more sophisticated companies at the same time. The typical RFP process creates an environment in which mystery shopping vendors over-promise in order to make the first cut, thus setting themselves up for failure if they win the account. In addition, it treats mystery shopping research as a commodity, regarding it as a bulk purchase of data rather than a high-value quality improvement tool. Companies have more success when they research the market carefully and identify the companies that have the knowledge and commitment to help them build a truly valuable program.

Obtain buy-in from the front-line. When mystery shopping initiatives fail to meet their potential it is often because the people who are accountable for the results — front-line employees, supervisors, store managers, and regional managers — were never properly introduced to the program. As a result there may be internal resistance, creating an unnecessary distraction from the achievement of the company’s service improvement goals. To ensure success, employees throughout the organization must be fully informed and bought into the mystery shopping program before it is launched. Pre-launch efforts should include training on how to read mystery shopping reports, how to use the information effectively, and how to set goals for improvement.

Provide adequate internal administration. Few companies anticipate the amount of administration necessary to run a successful mystery shopping program. It requires a strong administrator to keep the company focused and on board, and to make sure that recalcitrant field managers are not able to undermine the program before it stabilizes and begins to realize its potential value.

Plan for change. Even well-designed and administered mystery shopping research requires periodic adjustment. Performance scores eventually flatten out or cluster together, diminishing the value of the program as a tool for rewarding top performers and continuously improving quality. Periodic reviews should be worked into the program design so it can be kept relevant and useful, and so the bar can be repeatedly raised on service quality and employee performance.

Meeting the Demand

The consumer demand for better service is growing all the time. Companies struggle to meet this demand in the face of high employee turnover, shrinking profit margins, and increasing competition. At the same time the business landscape is becoming more and more complex, with 24-hour, multi-channel service now a basic consumer expectation.

Mystery shopping is among the more powerful tools available to companies seeking to improve their service quality. Providing objective data about service execution across locations and delivery channels allows managers to identify specific areas for improvement and to reward employees in a consistent, relevant manner.


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About Eric Larse

Eric Larse is co-founder of Seattle-based Kinesis CEM, LLC, which helps clients plan and execute their customer experience strategies through the intelligent use of customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping, linked with training and incentive programs. Visit Kinesis at: www.kinesis-cem.com

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