Setting Up A Mystery Shopper Program? Don’t Make These Mistakes!

Mystery shopper programs are an excellent way to measure frontline staff performance, recognize those who are providing stellar customer service and uncover potential service issues that need improvement before they become big headaches. However, a mystery shopper program can easily be sunk before it even starts.

The following are some mistakes we see retailers make all the time, which result in ill-performing mystery shopper programs.

Choosing the Wrong Mystery Shopping Provider

Maybe this one is a little obvious, but you can’t deny the fact that the success of a mystery shopper program ultimately boils down to the experience of the mystery shopping company you are working with. But how do you determine who you should work with?

Here are some helpful criteria to consider:

  • The Cost Factor: As the saying goes, “the cheapest option is the most expensive.” Check for hidden costs, upfront fees and changes to reports and management structure. Sometimes, the lowest cost alternative will end up costing more in money and headaches than you ever imagined.
  • Reporting Capabilities: Great reports are nice, but all of that pretty data means nothing if it is not “good data.” Do not be fooled by fancy reporting. What really counts is data integrity and a provider that not only collects that data correctly, but can show you how to apply it to achieve the improvements you’re going for.
  • Resources: Your mystery shopping provider should be able to cover all primary, secondary and tertiary areas of business with qualified shoppers. They should have a process in place for tracking shopper performance and should be able to tell you about each shopper’s talent for level of detail, overall quality and adhering to stated guidelines.
  • References: When speaking with the provider’s clients, find out how long they’ve been with that provider. One or two big retail names may have an influence on you, but a long-standing, loyal client list is far more impressive. Any provider can pull it together long enough to build a short term client list.

Designing an Ineffective Questionnaire

So much of the success (or pitfalls) of a program hinges on the quality of the survey tool used by the mystery shoppers. The mystery shopping company with whom you choose to partner should employ best practices in questionnaire design and help you steer clear of many of these common mistakes:

  • Double-barreled questions: In order for the results to be as actionable as possible, be certain you are only asking about one behavior in each question. For example, if you ask if an associate “smiled and greeted” upon the shopper entering the store, what does “No” in this case indicate? It could be one of any combination of not smiling, not greeting or both. Focus each question on one behavior.
  • Objective vs. subjective: There is a definitive difference between data you collect through a mystery shopping program (auditing brand behaviors) and that collected through a customer satisfaction program (voice of the customer). Valid mystery shop questions include if a behavior was executed, if specific promotions were mentioned, if associates were in dress code, etc. Customer Satisfaction questions focus on your customers’ perceptions of their store experience. Do not include rating questions or ask about mystery shoppers’ opinions in order to maintain the integrity of the program.
  • Ambiguity of expectations: Be concise. This is beneficial to both the store teams as well as the mystery shopper. Construct questions to clearly define the behaviors that are expected. For example, rather than asking if an associate was friendly, define those specific behaviors that you have trained the associates to perform, i.e., smile, make eye contact, focus on the customer, etc.
  • Too many questions: The goal of a mystery shop program should be to confirm that trained/expected behaviors are being executed, not observe/record every detail of the store operation. This tool works well in prioritizing behaviors for store associates related to their customer interactions. Asking too many questions will erode the ability of the mystery shopper to record details as well as dilute the priorities for the associates.

Neglecting to Manage Expectations

When retailers first initiate a mystery shopper program, it’s common for expectations to be high. After all, you’re taking a look at brand performance from a fresh perspective, so areas of opportunity are bound to arrive right? Yes, but don’t assume that scores will always be going up.

When a mystery shopper program is introduced, scores do tend to shoot up rapidly. However, over time, they tend to flatten out. While you may then assume the program is no longer working properly, the opposite is actually true. Looking back and recognizing the progress that has been made is more important than looking forward. Mystery shopping serves as a guideline for your store associates to understand and to reinforce the behaviors they should be using every day.

Following a One-And-Done Approach

When mystery shopper scores flatten out in a program, some retailers think the program is no longer needed. Don’t make this mistake! We’ve had cases where the mystery shopping program was stopped and we went back one, two, or three months later to measure performance, only to find it had fallen.

It is important to remember that the program emphasizes behaviors congruent with what is important to the business. Just because the numbers aren’t going up as dramatically as in the beginning of the program, does not mean the program is no longer valuable.

Instead, this is the perfect time to freshen up the surveys and focus on other areas that drive revenue and the brand.

Employing a Set It and Forget It Method

Equally as bad a following a one-and-done approach is thinking that your mystery shopper program will simply run itself. You can’t put your program on autopilot and then expect a great outcome. Attention and analysis is required from both the mystery shopping provider and the end user throughout the entire program.

It’s important to understand up front that mystery shopping is as much about proactive activity as it is about collecting data. For a mystery shopper program to be successful, it takes teamwork, cooperation and a willingness to see reality as well as potential for improvement. The best mystery shopper programs are living and breathing, changing and maturing as the stores change and grow and the business evolves.

Excluding Associates

It’s a long held belief that a mystery shopper program is a gotcha tactic for retailers to catch their associates doing something wrong. To combat this misconception, we firmly believe that retailers should keep everyone in the loop to reap the greatest benefit from the program.

The best mystery shopper programs find and reward the good behaviors that lead to positive outcomes for the retailer. These programs help to uncover opportunities that need improvement, but the real purpose is to find what’s right and build on that.

Positive recognition breeds change. Associates found doing something right should be rewarded for their positive behaviors in front of their peers. As other associates see the effects of recognition, they’ll want to model the behaviors that lead to accolades and your brand reaps the reward of stores across the company that perform brilliantly.

There’s a lot that goes into designing an effective mystery shopper program. Avoid these common mistakes and you’ll be on the right path toward improving customer experience.

Mystery Shopper Program