Mystery shopping

For most companies, customer service is an integral part of business strategy. Indeed, many firms have established guidelines on greeting customers and how staff should generally represent the company in a positive manner. But how do you find out whether these principles are being carried out in practice?

One effective, albeit a bit sneaky, method is to employ the services of one of the many mystery shopping companies operating in the UK. Mystery shoppers are ordinary members of the public commissioned to test the levels of customer service offered by your company, or even by one of your competitors. If you thought this was just used by retailers then think again. Mystery shopping has been widely used for a while by shops, restaurants and pubs, but all businesses striving for good customer service can benefit. Even plastic surgeons have reportedly employed the skills of these analytical wolves in customer clothing. Business-to-business mystery shopping is now popular as well.

How Mystery Shopping works

Traditionally, the shopper (or agent) is paid expenses and a small fee to visit a retail establishment and make observations on such factors as: the way they were greeted; how quickly they were acknowledged and served; if staff seemed genuinely pleased to see them and keen to help; and, a particularly important area, the state of the toilets. However, the system can be adapted for business-to-business services by making it more reliant on phone and email correspondence, analysing delivery times and other service criteria. The agent then files a report through an online questionnaire, the results of which are presented to the client company.

Tim Ogle, marketing director of Retail Eyes (UK), explains how the process can be tailored to a client’s needs. ‘To start with, we go and visit the client, meet their staff and some customers to get a real idea of what the business does. Then we can discuss what tangible and intangible benefits the client wants to gain from the programme and devise one accordingly.’

‘It’s not just a case of compliance to guidelines, such as, “Did the employee smile?”,’ explains Emmilynne Beynon, account manager at Mystery Shoppers. ‘It’s about finding out how the customer is made to feel.

‘The questions we ask our team of shoppers are devised in a way that gives justification for subjective opinions,’ she continues. ‘For example, one person may rate toilet facilities as acceptable while another may be appalled. With specific criteria to base opinions on, the results have greater validity, and are more useful.’

The benefits

Providers of these services claim that mystery shopping has a positive impact on sales and retention of both customers and staff. Employees are made aware that they could be serving a mystery shopper at any time and many companies offer rewards for positive feedback, such as small cash bonuses or a daytrip.

‘It’s a powerful motivator for staff if they are thinking every customer could be the mystery shopper – they deliver excellent service to everyone as a result,’ claims George Byers, general manager of the Wandsworth branch of the Virgin Active chain of gyms, which has been using mystery shopping to enhance customer service for around three years.

‘We pride ourselves on having high standards, but it’s easy to forget the basics when running a business of this size,’ Byers continues. ‘Receiving detailed feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of our staff identifies areas  to be addressed. We fine tune the questions we want to ask as we go along, based on what we’ve learnt so far.’

As for costs, they tend to vary depending on the programme but Retail Eyes’ Ogle says that a scheme involving one visit from a mystery shopper a month to 20 different outlets would cost around £8,000. Of course, there’s always the cheaper option of using friends and family members to pose as customers, but the results may not be as honest or as detailed as you need, and therefore not as useful. Although using a mystery shopping company may seem an expensive luxury, when weighed against improving your company’s service and thereby increasing productivity, it could be money well spent.

See also: What SMEs need to know about the new retail ombudsman – The introduction of the UK’s first retail ombudsman may have passed some by. But it’s well-worth catching up on, say Boost Capital.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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