Best Practices for Measuring Your Retail Customer Experience

How Customer Satisfaction Surveys and Mystery Shopping Program Can Work Together.

By Chris Denove, Senior VP, Research & Analytics

As a general rule, customer satisfaction surveys are a great way to understand how your customers subjectively “feel” about their experience with your retail store, while mystery shopping is the best way to determine how effectively your associates are performing specific processes. The important thing to remember is that customer surveys should never be used to audit the specific processes that comprise your customer experience. The rationale behind this basic proposition is easy to understand if you put yourself in the place of the customer you survey.

Imagine you are a customer who just visited one of your locations. Either printed on your receipt, or via email within a few days of your visit, you receive a survey asking about your experience. You won’t have any difficulty rating whether the overall experience was good or bad. It’s also likely that you’ll be able to evaluate certain broad elements of the experience such as the product selection, friendliness of staff, etc.

What you won’t be able to do, however, is answer questions about whether associates performed specific processes that exceed the bounds of normal human recall. Customer surveys should never ask questions such as; “Were you greeted with a smile when you entered?” or “Did the staff suggest a specific solution?” Unfortunately, we see companies make this basic mistake so often that it is almost the norm as opposed to the exception to the rule.

One of the dangers of asking detailed questions such as these on customer satisfaction surveys is that you will get answers – just not answers you can rely upon. One client was adamant that he keep a question in the survey asking whether the cashier “thanked the customer for shopping” at the end of the transaction. He correctly pointed out that when the question was answered “NO,” the overall satisfaction score tended to be low. He therefore made the connection that the failure to thank the customer was causing low satisfaction.

Of course the real reason behind the relationship between “thank you” and “satisfaction” was that customers couldn’t actually remember if a cashier thanked them, so customers  who had a good overall experience answered the question “yes,” while customers who had a bad experience answered “no.” This is why getting an answer to an ill-advised question is more dangerous than not getting any answer at all.

Finding the Gaps in Your Customer Processes

If you want to look into how well your retail associates are following specific processes, or whether those processes are being followed at all, then a mystery shopping program should be considered. Mystery shoppers are able to accurately record the smallest process details because they go into an encounter knowing the specific details they need to watch for (assuming you have a good mystery shopping service provider!). But, it is important to remember that mystery shoppers are not “real” customers. They are professional process auditors. This means that mystery shoppers are not the preferred choice of measuring overall customer satisfaction. The following example from an automotive client illustrates this point.

A mystery shopper completed a report for an automobile dealership that described what a great job the salesperson did of not only demonstrating every key feature on a car, but more importantly doing so in a way that brought those features to life. The dealer was therefore surprised when the mystery shopper rated the salesperson as only 7 out of 10 for their overall performance.

Because of this seeming disconnect to the detail provided, as part of our quality assurance process we contacted the shopper to find out why. She confirmed that the sales associate did an exceptional job from start to finish, but that she took off a few points in her “subjective” rating because the salesperson never actually asked for the sale. While failing to ask for the sale was a significant problem for the client, it isn’t something that lowers the satisfaction of a real customer.

These two examples illustrate why surveys should be used to get a subjective feel for what your customers think in a broad sense, while mystery shopping is used to dive into specific processes. Together the two types of programs provide a powerful one-two punch for providing operational feedback.

The Difference Between Customer Research and Actionable Customer Research

By Ron Welty, Owner & Chief Client Officer

What do our customers think of us?

It’s a key question for every company with a product to sell or a service to offer, and many companies go to great lengths conducting customer satisfaction research in an attempt to gather worthwhile data on their customers’ experiences. Too often, though, those initiatives lead to data that is interesting, but not particularly actionable.  What specifically needs to be done to improve a less-than-desirable “helpfulness of staff” score?  To be truly actionable, the data needs to tell a more complete story.

Take, for example, an IntelliShop study on customer experiences at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Nationally, these brands rank neck-and-neck in overall customer satisfaction and experience. But on a local level, key actionable differences emerged from store to store.

IntelliShop mystery shoppers visited Lowe’s and Home Depot stores in multiple cities, searching for the same product at both locations on the same day. Their experiences showed that product selection, checkout and even the facility itself were far less likely to bring customers back to the store than the personality of the salesperson who helped them and their knowledge of the product.

“At Home Depot the salesperson was lively, enthusiastic, and even funny. He smiled and gave eye contact and was very polite,” said one IntelliShop mystery shopper. “At Lowe’s, the salesperson was neither cordial nor enthusiastic. He gave non-verbal responses and was just going through the motions.”

In a different city, we saw an opposite description. “[The Lowe’s employee] was very nice and courteous. I appreciated how she responded in a polite manner and showed me where the drills were located, and how she spoke with the other employee in the department,” said the shopper. “At Home Depot, the employees were talking among themselves, and did not act like they enjoyed dealing with people.”

This nuance goes beyond what a typical customer service survey would reveal. Using a typical survey both Lowe’s and Home Depot would have learned something they probably could have guessed on their own: some of their stores provide good customer service, while others do not. There would have been no deeper picture of what employees did to produce a particular result.

But with mystery shopping, these two retail giants get a more complex picture of their employee performance. Our results give nuance to their understanding of the retail landscape, showing exactly what employees did well and what they did poorly. Just as importantly, it demonstrates that the factors that played into these results are all at the local level, where it should be the easiest to make changes that produce results. 

Armed with information produced by mystery shopping, both Lowe’s and Home Depot should be able to take immediate, well-defined steps to improve their customer experiences at individual stores. There’s no reason mystery shopping can’t produce the same outcome for your company.

Customer Engagement During Return

By Brian Caldwell, Client Services Manager

Brick and mortar retailers have become more focused on a “buy online and return in store” customer experience, a way to provide additional convenience for customers wanting instant gratification. Consumers sometimes cannot find the time to mail a product back to exchange it for something new. Stores are realizing this is a great opportunity to reengage with the online customer.
IntelliShop provides customer feedback through mystery shops to help retail clients understand the current state of this experience. These mystery shops will provide information to clients who wish to implement new training and/or refocus employees on affective tactics.
A process that was once designed to provide convenience by the best retailers is now evolving into a way to reengage with the online customers. 
Consider this example: I recently purchased an item online from a famous Big-Box electronics store. When I received the item, it did not work as I expected and I decided to return it. Not wanting to wait several days for shipping, I decided to bring it into the store for instant gratification. When I approached Customer Service, the associate asked me if I wanted to return or exchange it. He also asked if there were any problems with the purchase and I told him it didn’t work and wished to exchange it. His response to me was, “If we have any, they will be over in that section. You can go get one.” 
Imagine the value in taking an additional 30 seconds to inquire if I was an active rewards member (I’m not) and explain the benefits of becoming one. Or, what if he looked up the product to confirm it was in stock, and if not, offered to order it for me? Statistically, a portion of all consumers, when suggested a complementary item, will buy that item. Imagine if he noticed this item didn’t come with a protective case and mentioned a possible sale on cases. 
IntelliShop specializes in designing programs that will benchmark the experience currently provided to your omni-channel customers and provide insights on where that experience must evolve to remain competitive. We also provide ongoing feedback and trending data beneficial to your success.

How An Entirely Fake Restaurant Became London’s Hottest Reservation

By Davis Z. Morris, December 10, 2017

A London-based writer has illustrated how easy it is to manipulate review sites like TripAdvisor, by pushing an entirely nonexistent restaurant to the top spot in all of London.

Vice writer Oobah Butler – who also recently impersonated a designer for Paris Fashion Week – already had a bit of experience with gaming review sites, having previously been paid to write fake reviews by a shady PR service.

That inspired him to create The Shed at Dulwich, which was, literally, the backyard cottage he calls home. Butler set up an account for his “restaurant” using a cheap disposable phone, and simply didn’t provide an address, saying it was appointment only. That simultaneously deflected inquisitive debunkers, and created an air of exclusivity that was key to the eventual triumph of his fakery.

He also faked photos of The Shed’s food, somehow making shaving cream, bleach tablets, and his own feet into very convincing mockups of gourmet dishes. Then he recruited friends and allies to write glowing fake reviews, each of them unique and posted from different computers to help defeat TripAdvisor’s fraud detection systems.

Things quickly got, in Butler’s words, “a little out of hand.” From the very bottom of TripAdvisor’s charts, his fake restaurant steadily climbed the London rankings. He started getting emails and phone calls requesting nonexistent reservation spots, with interest only amping up when he told callers The Shed was “fully booked for the next six weeks.”

Even stranger, food suppliers started guessing the Shed’s address and sending him free samples, and job applications started rolling in. PR companies even contacted him to offer their services — all without Butler serving a single meal.

Somehow, the momentum carried The Shed at Dulwich to the top of TripAdvisor’s charts, making Butler’s fake eatery the top-rated restaurant in London. According to Butler, The Shed held on to that ranking for two weeks.

Butler finally decided to take his stunt to its obvious conclusion by cleaning up his yard, inviting a handful of guests over, and serving them frozen dinners straight from the grocery store. Some of The Shed’s guests apparently saw through the ruse, but most, according to Butler, enthusiastically bought in to what seems to have been a genuinely unique experience, with some even immediately requesting to rebook.

TripAdvisor, responding to Butler’s stunt, argued that it didn’t prove much, since there’s little real-world incentive for anyone to create a fake restaurant. But that misses the larger point: even as we rely more and more on the internet for information, a lot of that information can’t be trusted.

There has been plenty of evidence over the years of concerted efforts to manipulate review sites, including not just TripAdvisor but also Yelp, and even the car dealership guide on There’s no evidence that these sites are complicit in the fakery; it hurts them as much as anyone, but just as with fake news on Facebook and Russian bots on Twitter, it’s obviously hard to stop.

We’ve reached out to TripAdvisor for further comment on the renowned shed, and will update with any response.

How Technology Is Changing the Mystery Shopper World for SMBs

By Mona Buchnell, December 21, 2017

Online review websites and an increase in low-cost mystery shopping companies have led to more ways for busy entrepreneurs to understand shoppers' minds.

Implementing best practice policies, employing experienced managers and being hands-on all go a long way toward managing quality assurance, but hiring professional mystery shoppers to see how things really run when you're not around is still a tried-and-true method for maintaining high standards.

Like most industries, the mystery shopper business has been impacted by technology in both positive and negative ways. With the advent of online review websites and an increase in low-cost mystery shopping companies, there have never been more ways for busy entrepreneurs to get third-party feedback on customer service, but sometimes too much information can be paralyzing. If you're considering hiring a mystery shopper, but you're not sure where to start or how a professional assessment service will differ from the customer feedback you already receive online, this guide is for you.

Mystery shoppers in the era of online reviews
The popularity of websites like Yelp has drastically changed the way business owners in service-related industries receive customer feedback, and many SMBs feel lost as to how much stock they should put into online reviews. While most entrepreneurs agree that consistent negative reviews, especially those that critique the same issue, shouldn't be ignored, the veracity of negative one-off reviews can be difficult to determine, and conflicting accounts of service experiences are often confusing. For these reasons, many SMB owners still employ mystery shoppers (or mystery diners, mystery clients, etc.).

In addition to offering a fresh take on service, professional mystery shoppers bring a lot to the table that online customer reviews don't. One major issue with using online customer feedback to inform future decisions is a lack of industry knowledge. For example, a reviewer might say they received bad service in your store because an item was out of stock. While stock issues should absolutely be addressed, it's hardly the fault of the sales associate, even though the customer may blame them specifically (in some cases going so far as to physically describe them online or name them outright). Similar issues happen with online food service reviews, wherein nonprofessional reviewers ream waitstaff for long wait times or poorly executed food, when the real issue may be in the kitchen or with the way the front of the house is being managed.  

The main advantage to employing professional mystery shoppers is that they are first and foremost professionals. Reputable companies hire mystery shoppers because they have a keen attention to detail, high standards, and most importantly, experience in the industry. Thus, rather than considering websites like Yelp to be a replacement for professional assessment services, online reviews should be considered as just one part of the QA puzzle.  

Fighting online mystery shopper scams
The online culture of leaving reviews for everything from boutiques to insurance companies has led many people to believe they have what it takes to become a professional customer service assessor. Because of this, the online landscape is cluttered with scam mystery shopper companies that promise jobs to inexperienced reviewers, often in exchange for one-time registration fees. SMB owners who hire these fake companies can end up spending a pretty penny for substandard services (if services are ever rendered at all).

To combat these scam services and promote industry training standards for QA specialists, organizations like the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) have formed. The MSPA is a global association dedicated to creating professional standards and ethics throughout the mystery shopping industry, in addition to raising awareness among service providers and business consumers regarding best practices. The MSPA has 450 member companies worldwide and offers SMB owners free access to a search tool for reputable mystery shopper companies, which can be filtered by need and region.  

For SMB owners who want to hire mystery shoppers, tools like those provided by the MSPA are invaluable, and there is no reason not to use them. By utilizing resources from professional organizations and cross-checking mystery shopper companies with the Better Business Bureau, SMBs can easily avoid wasting time and money on subpar services.

Mystery shopping technology
Mystery shopping services employ high-tech methods for capturing information and for verifying and standardizing the mystery shopping process, which means better data for SMBs.

Many companies now utilize geotracking to ensure mystery shoppers are going where they say they're going, and most QA reports are now submitted via mobile applications, which means SMBs get shoppers' feedback faster. Inputting QA information in an app, rather than writing it out or filling out a stagnant web form, also allows the business owners who hire mystery shoppers to request very specific feedback.

For example, an entrepreneur who owns a chain of auto supply stores might notice an uptick in online complaints regarding the tire department in one of her three store locations. This individual might then request an in-depth mystery shopper report specifically about the customer service in that tire department at that specified store location. This type of customized service was historically only accessible for enterprise-level companies that could pay top dollar for a fleet of specially trained mystery shoppers, but now, thanks to improved technology, it's affordable for much of the SMB set.

Better reporting is also a side effect of digitized QA assessments, and if you're in the market for a mystery shopper company, one of the first things you should ask for is a sample report. The more sophisticated companies out there may direct you to a business user portal online where you then filter through mystery shopper assessments over time in a dynamic dashboard. Often video and audio files of mystery shopper encounters can be stored alongside reports, which further enhance the experience of receiving feedback and gives the business owner an up-close and personal look at customer service.  

Bottom line
Online feedback from customers is valuable, but it's not the only way – or even the best way – to find out how your business functions when you're not there. Assuming you complete your due diligence when selecting a mystery shopper company, these professional services can provide you with the detailed insight you need to make better process and hiring decisions.