Secret shopping is a research tool deployed by organizations both externally and internally. The external application is for business intelligence and competitive research. In other words, it’s a means for an organization to get a leg up on the competition. Internal secret shopping, on the other hand, is a method of auditing the customer experience with your team and brand.
Now, if you’re not familiar with the term, secret shopping is an approach by which an external resource (a hired secret shopper) plays the role of a customer seeking service.
Secret shopping is a common tactic in the retail space but can be applied across most industries. According to the RGB, secret shopping has tremendous value for companies because “...they can receive measurable data about how satisfied their customers are, then they can take specific steps to improve it. Customer Satisfaction is a very subjective term, and different people measure their own level of satisfaction in very different ways.”
What’s intriguing about secret shopping is not only the data produced from firsthand experiences with your team and brand, but also its scalability-secret shopping can range from a face-to-face interaction at a physical storefront and phone calls to simple information requests to track response times and accuracy.
Your customers' satisfaction levels with your team and brand is very subjective, as RGB suggests. Secret shopping, when done right, adds a level of actionable insight that simply can’t be gathered any other way.
So, how can executing a secret shopping plan help improve your customer service performance? Let’s take a look.
What Happens When the Boss Isn’t Watching
It’s human nature to be on your best behavior and following every protocol when the manager or company owner is around. But what happens when a supervisor isn’t watching? That’s what a great mystery shopping (another name for secret shopping) experience can do for a business. A skilled mystery shopper can provide this perspective, which can reveal so much about your team and where they need to improve and where you might need to focus your training.
Finding Gaps in the Process
By engaging in secret shopping, you should receive a 360 degree vantage point on how a customer might experience the customer service process. This can identify gaps where customers don’t receive the right information, or request information that falls into a black hole. When a customer seeks a solution to a problem, the worst possible outcome-other than a nasty interaction with a customer service representative-is no response at all. A secret shopping project can reveal issues surrounding the user experience (either online or in-store or in-office), timeliness (how quickly information is provided either verbally, via email or the mail) and accuracy.
Flipping the script and becoming the customer can be very revealing in both positive and negative ways.
Are Your Employees Following the Rules of Engagement?
Many companies provide guidelines, for example, on how to answer the phone, what to say and what to ask.
So let’s say you’re an HVAC services company. You’ve laid out a phone script for answering new customer calls. If you or your designated manager stand over the shoulder of a representative, the likelihood you’ll get a realistic sense of how your protocols are followed is low. Sure, you might make the rep nervous, but you can bet they’ll follow the script.
Now, engage a secret shopper where the rep believes they are dealing with a real customer and you’ll get real time, real world data that you can act on.
Determining If Your Training Is Effective
Utilizing mystery or secret shopping can also identify training areas that require more attention and focus. If the project identifies a general failure to ask a protocol question like, “How did you hear about us?”, you can refine your employee training to emphasize the “why” behind this question to reinforce its importance.
If response times are lackluster, training can be implemented to improve it. In essence, the 360 degree customer perspective gained from a strong secret shopping program can really pay off in the form of better performance and continual, long term improvement and adjustment of your customer service approach.
Tips for Executing Secret Shopping
- Keep it Secret.
Don’t inform employees. The integrity of the program depends on your team’s lack of awareness that it exists. It’s important to consider industry rules and regulations when engaging secret shopping programs, as well as the impact it can have on your team’s morale should it be discovered, or, deficiencies revealed during the process are corrected in a punitive manner. For every business the ethical nature of secret shopping needs to be considered; ultimately, it’s your call, but understand the possible negative ramifications should things go wrong.
- Carefully Vet Your Hire.
If you choose to hire a third party to conduct secret shopping, make sure you do your due diligence. While this is common sense for anything you do, the secret shopping world is a bit more prone to scammers than other vendor types. Don’t take this lightly because hiring a bad secret shopper can have serious ramifications for your business. In particular, make sure that the third party will provide tangible data and has checks and balances in place to ensure that they are truly engaging and doing a deep dive into the customer experience. A good place to start your due diligence process is with MSPA Americas, the U.S. chapter of the customer experience trade association.
- Understand Customer Satisfaction is Different From Customer Experience.
This is an important yet subtle difference. Mystery shopping provides data about the customer experience as it happens, whereas customer satisfaction is typically gathered after the fact via online, mailed or phone surveys. Both have value, but understand secret shopping is not focused on satisfaction, in particular, but rather the entirety of a customer’s experience with your brand.
- Don’t Punish. Teach.
The outcome of secret shopping should not be punitive, as mentioned earlier. The data should be used to teach and train your team to do better. Being mystery shopped by your employer is never a welcome experience, but pair that with punishment and you’ll seriously damage your company culture and reputation. In the event that your team discovers the mystery shop, your saving grace will be that you took a teach/train approach.
- Mystery Shop Regularly.
One-off mystery or secret shopping is a waste of funds and time. To truly benefit, a company needs to engage this approach on a regular basis, even if only annually. Customers change. Your team changes. Your services and products can also change over time. Continual improvement in customer service must be an ongoing process that’s tracked and monitored closely.
One of the best parts of the secret shopping concept is it can be scaled to your budget and customized to your industry. From hiring just one person to make a day of customer service inquiries to multiple, in store face-to-face interactions, secret shopping provides companies both large and small with true customer perspectives that are difficult to find via any other means.
When it comes to providing the best customer service over the long haul, smart companies make consistent investments in research, data measurement and training.