Hello shoppers...

In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs would direct their closest officials to hire peasants to listen in on citizen's conversations, then report back any "The Pharaoh is a stupid poo-poo head." blasts.

"Hey - could somebody go listen in on what Chuck's saying about me?"

These peeps were known as "snitches."

Today, we know them better as "Secret Shoppers."

Secret shopping, in spite of its malevolent roots,  can be a wonderful tool for business owners, by which they can measure whether or not an employee is being a stupid poo-poo head.

Yet that gauge, like the fuel gauge on my '72 Chevy Impalla, is wrong a lot, which makes a lot of Mystery Shopping companies, and the reports they spit out for their clients, about as useful as polluted gas exhaust.

Things start out great!

National Mystery Shopping companies (I call the bad ones "Mystery Shopping" because it's a mystery to me why any company would use them) are paid to give business owners, managers and employees, an accurate sense of what their store, staff, stuff and services, looks, sounds, feels, smells and tastes like, to the customers who shop there.

Those companies do that by hiring and training people to measure elements of their experience during a "normal" shopping visit to the store that hired the company.  The criteria are determined by years of consumer research into what makes a shopping experience "good," combined with specific questions the owners of that particular store, want answered.

The criteria and questions usually include how long it takes before a Mystery Shopper is greeted by a store employee, what the greeting is, the employee's demeanor, the mentioning and explanation of in-store specials and promotions, whether the employee asked for the sale, how clean the store was, what was the speed and quality of the service, and would the shopper, shop there again.

So far, so good.

The Mystery Shopper typically answers those questions by filling out a questionnaire, either on paper or, more often, through a survey portal on the Mystery Shopping company's website.

Here is an actual questionnaire. used by a National Mystery Shopping company.


BUSINESS (Store) NAME: ________________________________________________


MYSTERY SHOPPER'S NAME:____________________________________________

DATE AND TIME OF SHOPPING EXPERIENCE:_____________________________


Was store clean and neat?

Was lobby/waiting area clean?

Was your presence acknowledged within a short time of arrival?

Were you greeted in a friendly manner?

Were employees dressed professionally?

Did they offer to assist you with problems?

Were they courteous?

Did they know their products well?

Were the dressing rooms clean?

Did they thank you for shopping with us?

In the space provided below, please give a summary of your shopping experience.



How do you rate this establishment?


____________ Good

____________ Fair

____________ Poor

Based on your experience, would you shop at this location again in the future?_________

__________________________________ ______________________________

Your signature _____________________________________

Date Submitted _________________

It's at this point where the wheels fall off the bus.

"Did the salesperson seem friendly?"

This shallow level of Mystery Shopping doesn't work, because it doesn't work hard enough, and for the most part, at all.

First, the massiveness of any sensory experience that any of us have, doing anything, can't be shoved into a compartmentalized funnel of "yes or no" questions, "ratings" and "summaries."

That's why Van Gogh cut his ear off - because the painting he painted of a chair, was no better than a summary of the real chair he was looking at, and never as good as the image of the chair inside his head.

Don't believe those expensive Time-Life history books - the dufus sliced off his left-ear lobe because of his bad mystery shopping practices.

"Van Gogh": Dutch, for "Failed Mystery Shopper"

To see how totally inadequate the above questionnaire, and others like it, is, in measuring and reflecting the real experience of Secret Shoppers, let's use it to try to find out about your day today.

First, if I ask you, "Did you have a good day?" which is basically how the closed-ended "yes or no" questions in the questionnaire are asked, does your closed-ended yes or no answer give me any real indication of what you've seen, said, heard, felt, smelled, tasted and experienced over the course of the last eight hours?

What if I ask you to write down a summary of your day, as the questionnaire then asks. Doesn't that sound like fun??

Other than Stephen King, most of us aren't that great at writing descriptions of our thoughts and emotions. What's more, writing is laborious, even for those who get paid to do it, or for those assorted blog-writing freaks who look at the writing process as "fun."

What if I ask you to rate your day: "excellent," "good," "fair," or "poor?" Can any of thse four adjectives, possibly do your day justice? Isn't this really just a closed-ended question, with two extra options?

Let's add numerical ratings, as many Mystery Shopping questionnaires do.

What if I ask you to rate your day, 1-5, with 1 being "terrible" and 5 being "fantastic?" You give it a 2. Okay - what do I now know about your day, other than you obviously wasted it reading a customer service blog?

To quote the Aaron Neville/Linda Ronstadt duet, I don't know much.

It's no wonder that many of the store managers and owners of the places I Secret Shop, who already have Mystery Shoppers, are so completely caught off guard, taken by surprise and literally stunned by their store's Secret Shopper results, the ones that I share with you each Thursday.

The problem with Mystery Shopping companies and the questionnaires their employees fill out, is that much, even most of the data submitted, is quantitative, vs. qualitative.

The distinctions between the two can be seen in the chart, below.

Differences Between
Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods

Qualitative Methods Quantitative Methods
Methods include focus groups, in-depth interviews, and reviews Surveys
Primarily inductive process used to formulate theory Primarily deductive process used to test pre-specified concepts, constructs, and hypotheses that make up a theory
More subjective: describes a problem or condition from the point of view of those experiencing it More objective: provides observed effects (interpreted by researchers) of a program on a problem or condition
Text-based Number-based
More in-depth information on a few cases Less in-depth but more breadth of information across a large number of cases
Unstructured or semi-structured response options Fixed response options
No statistical tests Statistical tests are used for analysis
Can be valid and reliable: largely depends on skill and rigor of the researcher Can be valid and reliable: largely depends on the measurement device or instrument used
Time expenditure lighter on the planning end and heavier during the analysis phase Time expenditure heavier on the planning phase and lighter on the analysis phase
Less generalizable More generalizable

Which world do you live in? Which world do you suppose shoppers, real shoppers, live in?

Let's go back for a moment to me so thoughtfully trying to find out about your crappy day.

What if I simply said, "Tell me about your day." You'd say, "Why didn't you ask me that great question to begin with, ya closed-ended, summary-swindlin, rancid ratin varmit?

Man - forget I asked, Yosemite Sam.

This is where the science of quantitative gets shot in its numbers-driven foot, replaced by the art of the qualitative - the process we predominantly use with Secret Shoppers of The Buyosphere.

The reasons I love the way my Secret Shoppers, secret shop my clients, is not just because I developed the process, but that doesn't hurt.

Here's a few more.

1. I record their audio testimony, immediately after their secret shopping experience.

This takes the mind-numbing labor of filling out paperwork, out of their hands, allowing the secret shopper to fully and completely tap into their own thoughts and feelings.

This audio testimony is also played back for employees, during group training sessions. Try that with a piece of questionnaire paper. The impact on an employee, of hearing a first-hand account of a Secret Shopper experience with them, from the source's mouth, cannot be over-stated.

2. The first question asked is, "Tell me about your shopping experience."

This isn't the dead-end banality of, "Did you have a great time, and junk?" It's taking whatever natural skills of verbal expression the Secret Shopper possesses, and turning them loose, to create a free-roaming beginning to end unencumbered narrative. It's telling their story, in their own words, not the words of others.

3. I ask the secret shopper about the five pillars of great customer service.

The typical Mystery Shopping method of analysis, as shown on the questionnaire, is based upon unstructured generalities and vague inquiry: "Were they friendly?" "Were they courteous? Were they helpful?"

Secret Shoppers for The Buyosphere are asked about five specific criteria that I developed, and use, in training: Smile, greet, engage, thank, follow-up.

Did the employee smile at you? Describe their initial demeanor. Did the employee greet you? How did the employee greet you? Did the employee engage you? Did they ask for your name, and give their own, and use your name throughout the conversation? How was the employee's demeanor throughout the conversation? What was their body language? How was their eye contact? Did they focus on you? Were they distracted? Did they thank you at the end of the conversation? How did they thank you? Did they shake your hand and use your name? Did they get contact information from you that would allow them to follow up with you? Do you think they will follow up with you? Why or why not?

There are no generalities here, no vague inquiries. These pillars of customer service are specific and solid, demonstrative and obvious.

I believe that a customer service culture can be built upon these five pillars of customer service - and so these are the pillars, the criteria that Secret Shoppers search for, during their store visits.

4. I ask the Secret Shoppers to rate their overall experience.

"Ah-HA!" comes the cry from the reader peanut gallery. "You said you don't like ratings, but there you are, rating, you dirty rater!" Guilty as charged.

But unlike most ratings on most questionnaires, I give my Secret Shoppers more leeway, with a 1-10 rating. I also define the bottom and top, with one being the worst experience they've ever had, and 10 being the best. Lastly but not leastly, I ask them whyst-ly they rate it as they do. It's a combination of subjective quantitative numbers, and objective qualitative analysis, that paints a fuller, deeper, more dynamic picture.

5. I ask Secret Shoppers to tell me one thing the employee did well, and one thing they need to work on.

This question, in my view, is one of the many that sets The Buyosphere's Secret Shopper program and process apart from the rest of the pack.

I will tell Secret Shoppers that "Bob" or "Betty" is listening to this, and to direct their comments directly to them. In other words, I know that the guy/girl this Secret Shopper, just secret shopped, will be listening to this audio, in a training session, and so I want the Secret Shopper to address this person directly, as if they were standing right there.

 I will say, "Tell Bob something he did really well."

"Bob," they might say, "I loved the way you came right up to me and shook my hand, and got my name."

Then I'll say, "Now tell Bob something that, if he does this thing, it will make him a better sales person."

"Bob," they might begin, "You can't leave me to talk to another employee - I felt abandoned. Next time, stay there with me, make me feel like I'm your only concern, the only person in your life, at that point."

Imagine Bob, hearing that? Wow. Pow. Holy-cow. You can't help but be changed as a person, and improved as an employee, by having that level of honesty directed at you, shared by someone who was just with you.

Most Q and a sessions last around 10 minutes. The audio is emailed to the store owners and managers, who also receive written summaries - and yes it pains me to write that word. Yet I also admit that the spoken and written word each have a place in the secret shopper process, but that neither can stand alone, and be as strong, and powerful and effective.

6. I ask the Secret Shopper, "Would you go back to that store? Why or why not? Would you tell a friend about your experience? Why or why not? What would you tell them?"

Sure, the Secret Shopper is ready to punch me in the face at this point, and just wants their cash so they can go home. Sure, the above questionnaire got something right, the question about going back to the store.

Equally sure, is that no questions asked of any shopper, secret or not so much, will more accurately determine a retail store's current and future success.

Considering all of our shopping options, including buying elsewhere, or not buying at all, a store has to work very hard, and very well, to intice us to return.

If a Secret Shopper says they'll go back, that's good news for the retailer. Why they'll go back is the gold standard of Secret Shopper questions. That's the really really good stuff, the stuff that the retailer can build up and up and up, until it compensates for some of the inevitable bad...

...which, unfortunately, is what more shoppers share more often with more friends, especially via social networking. The average to good stuff, we keep to ourselves, because that's our expectation, that's our normal traffic flowing smoothly. When there's a car crash, we grab the cell phone - or the laptop. (Read Legends, The Fall: Think Toyota, But With Salad.) 

As I've told many a business owner, I'm much more interested in why shoppers don't shop at your store, than why they do. Figure out what prevents them from coming back through your door, reduce or eliminate it, then tell the world you've reduced or eliminated it, and many of them will come back.

So the next time you hear that a place you shop uses Mystery Shoppers, ask them if their process is questionnaires full of closed-ended questions, summaries and ratings, or something more profound; a high-quality well-planned program and process designed to truly measure, and improve, the retail world in which we shop.

If the answer is the latter, they're probably a client. :)

Jonnie Wright is the President and CEO of The Buyosphere, a customer service training, marketing and recruiting company based in Des Moines, Iowa.









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