Shining a Light On Mystery Shopping

Canadian Business Franchise , September/October 2006. David Lipton

You may not think your customers are always right, but seeing things the way they do can be key to unlocking your franchise’s potential. The perception a customer holds of your brand, your store and your service are vital to your success. As customers expect consistency from location to location, a poor experience at one store reflects badly on the entire chain.

Limitation of customer feedback

There are several options for franchisors who want customer attitudes to improve. Unfortunately, many are satisfied simply with a voluntary customer feedback program. While such programs are an important way to keep in touch with customers, they are only a small part of the entire picture. Being voluntary, customer feedback typically highlights only those aspects of the franchise that provoke a very strong opinion, either good or bad. However, there is much more to learn.

The mystery shopping option

A comprehensive “mystery shopping” program, on the other hand, provides a view of what occurs in the service environment at a given moment, seen through the eyes of a real customer. Mystery shoppers are trained to be observant, providing information tailored to the exact standards established for your brand. For example, if you expect customers to be greeted within 30 seconds of arrival, mystery shoppers can prove how long it really takes. Perhaps you insist that a customer ordering a small drink should always be offered a larger one? Mystery shoppers will order in exactly the fashion you like and record the response. Should you be concerned your employees are less customer- service oriented on the weekends, mystery shoppers can evaluate your franchise at a specific day and time.

A good mystery shopper will be reliable, responsible, service-oriented and possess a keen eye for detail. While some of the companies offering this service will interview potential employees before hiring and train them thoroughly for specific jobs, others are less vigilant. As with most service industries, you get what you pay for.

Mystery shopping is best conducted at regular intervals over a set period. Most companies receive monthly reports, though some prefer bimonthly or quarterly reports, so franchisees and employees will be able to track their progress continually. Mystery shopping results are often used as a basis for rewarding employees, even in unionized environments, and are rarely used as a disciplinary tool. The best ones are developed ahead of time, with management and staff each providing input. Employees know the evaluation is coming, and even know what is on the evaluation form, allowing them to consider things and prepare.

Of course, mystery shopping isn’t only useful for larger franchisors with numerous stores. Many newer, smaller franchisors find it equally valuable; in fact, having a mystery-shopping program is an excellent selling point to would-be franchisees, as it shows concern for quality and brand strength.

Some franchisees also run mystery shopper programs independent of the franchisor. This is often done to prepare for franchisor inspections, though it may simply reflect concern for their own business and a desire to improve it.

Criticisms of mystery shopping

Critics of mystery shopping often claim it is nothing more than a “snapshot” of a business on a particular day. However, mystery shopping is not meant to reflect statistically-valid sample sizes. Instead, it observes how customers are actually treated, and helps extrapolate best practices for that location and its staff. Others ask why a company should pay for a mystery shopper instead of several hundred surveys or an online comment card. While these methods are valuable in their own right, they are not replacement for mystery shopping. As mentioned above, comment cards are usually completed only by very happy or very unhappy customers. One might complain, “I stood in line too long,“ but not necessarily “I stood in line for more than 45 seconds.” What if your brand boasts a 45 - second wait time or less?

Preparing for the mystery shopper

Before you set about finding a mystery-shopping provider, there are several questions you need to ask:

  1. What information can you gain from the mystery-shopping program and how will you apply it?
  2. Have you consulted with your employees about the goals of your program? (This is recommended, depending on its purposes.)
  3. What types of evaluation will be most effective for your franchise? Examples include in-person visits, telephone calls, email and website evaluations, competitive inspections or combinations of these.
  4. How will you arrange your mystery shopper’s schedule?
  5. What is the desired demographic profile for the mystery shoppers being sent? (The mystery shopper will typically embody the profile, although occasionally, employers send in someone who doesn’t fit, as this too can be a test.)
  6. What kind of costs are you willing to incur?

Choosing the best provider

In order to get the most out of your program, you will need to find a provider with enough expertise to guide you along, and enough flexibility to meet your needs. There are many companies offering mystery-shopping services, so when it comes time to choose one for your franchise, you should keep many things in mind:

  1. The provider should be seriously focused on client care and respond immediately to client needs. A specific team should be dedicated to serving you as a client, providing the attention your company deserves. An effective mystery shopper program requires an efficient supplier with excellent time management.
  2. A provider with an easy-to-use, Internet-based program will reduce the administrative burdens of mystery shopping. Using the Internet makes it quick and cost-effective to make changes to your standards, instructions, tasks, timelines, questions, etc. For security reasons, some companies still rely on traditional mail, fax or couriers to deliver results. However the information that would be leaked through the web is almost never scandalous anyway.
  3. The mystery-shopping provider you select should possess a proven track record for handling clients in your particular industry, as this can help them identify pitfalls early. A good company can develop effective shopping scenarios, straightforward evaluation forms/checklists and proper statistical reports. The data made available to you through charts, graphs, and questionnaires, must be easily digestible so problems are clearly identified.
  4. The provider should be flexible enough to accommodate client capabilities. While an Internet based program is of great help, a quality provider can deliver information in other ways if the franshisor requires it.
  5. Mystery shoppers should be profiled, selected, trained and continuously monitored for quality by their provider. They may need to be rotated to avoid being recognized over time and to maintain an objective viewpoint of your brand and customers.
  6. Insurance coverage is extremely important. The provider you choose should have current professional liability coverage. Should any legal actions be initiated as a result of the information your provider collects, you must be protected.
  7. The information you receive must be timely, accurate and useful. You must work with your mystery-shopping provider to ensure that targeted, task-specific information gets to the people who need it. Various user groups within your company may require information in job-specific formats, e.g. operations people will be interested in standards and procedures, while human resources (HR) people are more concerned with training effectiveness. As such, the information must be provided in an intuitive manner for each user.
  8. The provider should not burden you with the same administrative hassles and high costs a customer feedback program would cause. Once again, the Internet proves useful, as it allows your company to nearly eliminate program administration costs.
  9. The provider should always push your organization to continuously improve. More detailed evaluation procedures, tougher scoring and greater demands on your employee’s will challenge them and instill a culture of positive change.
  10. A good mystery shopping provider should also offer a range of complimentary services, like analysis of competition, on-line electronic comment card programs, traditional on-site comment cards, onsite exit interviews, customer satisfaction and follow up surveys and telephone programs. Any of the services offered should be customizable, and the standards entirely at your discretion.

When competition is fierce, customer relations are the one thing separating a successful franchise from an unsuccessful one. For franchises, then, a proper mystery-shopping program answers questions far too important to ignore. While early results may be disappointing, they can do much to start a store on the right path and maintain great service over time.

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