Dispelling Myths of Mystery Shopping

By
Navi Vaid, Senior director of business development

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Let’s see if you can relate to this executive’s story. Larry oversees the operations of 60 gas and convenience locations that span about 200 square miles. Like many other operators, Larry has brought in newer product lines such as energy drinks, roller grills, hot breakfast, prepared deli sandwiches, improved coffee equipment and even upgraded signage.

Larry has also taken on new initiatives such as promotional incentives and product combos. Looks good? Well, Larry analyzes the numbers for sales and expenses, and he just hasn’t seen the improvement he expected. He knows he needs to make some adjustments, but he isn’t quite sure what operational standards he needs to adjust and which standards are not being followed all the time.

Larry can’t go to every location and see how they are doing each month (never mind every day or every shift), so he does what most people do when he looks for answers: He goes to the Internet in search of a tool to help with these questions. He is immediately overwhelmed with websites touting myriad audit and survey solutions, all of whom have different recommendations and benefits, and all of whom seem to make aggressive promises.

Larry is confused and a bit skeptical, and he’s not alone. And the idea of “wasting” money on mystery shops doesn’t appeal to him—mind you, he already has his shoppers’ data.

Myth One: Mystery shoppers can provide you with customer feedback.

This is the classic fallacy about what mystery shopping provides in terms of data. Mystery shoppers are not standard customers. They are professionals trained and tested to look for specific observations based on your own internal standards. They are checking to see if the expectations you have for your operations are being adhered to. They are not providing their opinions on your operations

.Myth Two: Customer satisfaction surveys are a good replacement for mystery shopping because you hear from “real customers.”

As stated in the first myth, mystery shoppers are not giving you customer feedback. Therefore, customer surveys cannot replace mystery shopping. They are complementary services aimed at very different feedback goals. It is worth noting that customer satisfaction surveys have become very economical, especially when added to a core mystery-shopping or audit program. Keep in mind, however, that you will get feedback mainly from three groups of your clients: those very upset, those extremely happy and those who tend to complete surveys in general(particularly if incentives are involved).

Myth Three: Mystery shopping can measure complex operational standards.

For mystery shoppers to be effective, they have to look and act like regular customers in your establishment. Therefore, you have to be careful to not ask them to check things that would create unusual customer behavior. For example, checking product temperatures, inventory levels or date codes on multiple products would identify them to the employees. If this is the type of data you are looking for, then an unannounced overt audit would-be recommended. In this situation it is still a surprise visit, but you can measure more complex standards, perform inventory audits and take pictures as appropriate.

Myth Four: Auditors (or mystery shoppers) are employees of a particular company. 

The reality is that there are hundreds of companies who claim to be in the operational compliance measurement business. This is made possible because of the very low barriers to entry. You can outsource your reporting system as well as your field team, including its management. Therefore, most companies are providing their service by using third parties. So regardless of the branding on the product you see, you may actually be getting the same execution and delivery, regardless of whom you choose to work with. Only the largest companies are able to have their own field teams, as well as actually write and control their own reporting platforms.

Myth Five: I will be able to directly measure the ROI from my program.

The adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” is true. This is where operational measurement programs help. However, you have to use the data to adjust training and business practices, and maybe provide incentives to change behavior, if you expect to see results.

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