The Value of $18
Rather than take a plane to Chicago to meet with some of my clients, I decided that, for fun, I would try the train. (Blame it on my recent visit to Cincinnati’s beautifully-preserved, sickeningly Art Deco Union Terminal train station, coupled with my love for old movies in which motors and planes were less accessible.) While my expectations for this form of travel weren’t abundantly high, per se, I was still kind of excited to try something new.
Upon arriving, I got in line to retrieve my ticket. In front of me was a kindly older woman inquiring about an $18 refund; she had been directed to that specific counter by a customer service agent over the phone. The customer calmly and concisely explained the situation to the agent, stating that she remembered also speaking with her as well. Immediately, the agent interrupted the customer, saying, “Mary, you did not speak with me. I do not remember you at all.” Becoming slightly frustrated, Mary reiterated what she had been directed by the agent on the phone to do, which was simply to see an onsite agent for the measly $18 refund. Rather than issuing the refund, the agent repeated defensively that it was not she with whom Mary spoke, and there was nothing she could do for the customer; Mary would need to call customer service back and work it out with them. Needless to say, for those of us in line, it was fairly uncomfortable. The defeated customer begrudgingly grabbed her suitcase, thanked the agent and walked out. At least the agent used Mary’s name when addressing her, I guess.
Of course, I could bemoan all of the lost opportunities for actually helping the customer, but, that’s too easy. The predominant issue, in my humble, business-traveling perspective, is ownership. Are we taking ownership of our customers’ problems, or are we simply identifying a scapegoat and inefficiently pushing the problem to someone else? Not only would it have been a more satisfying customer experience for Mary if the agent had either provided the refund or simply called customer service to determine what Mary would need to do in order to finally receive said refund, but it probably would have been more cost effective as well. What could have been resolved with one point of contact (the original agent over the phone) was still unresolved after two—maybe even three or more—contacts. And further, the station may have lost (at least) one of its customers as a result. Was cyclical finger pointing worth it for $18 and the potential abandonment of what could have been a customer’s long-time loyalty?
While waiting for my overdue train, I thought about whether or not Mary will return to this train station (or any, for that matter) when it comes time to book her next trip. I’ll never know. But, after witnessing this spectacle, will I myself return? It’s hard to say. Perhaps a follow-up, train-soul-searching trip to Cincinnati’s defunct Union Terminal station is in order. However, I’ll refrain from taking the train there, just in case.
When You Give Your Customer A Lemon…
Before I found my true calling as a Client Services Manager at IntelliShop, I made my living as a fishing guide in the Florida Keys. Being in my small boat with my customers, 8 hours or more at a time, miles from civilization, was the crucible that helped forge my understanding of what it takes to provide superior customer service. Most of the time the job of pleasing my Clients was easy and made easier by cooperative fish, nice weather, and gorgeous surroundings. When nature did not cooperate, my Clients understood that these things were out of my control, and, as they say “a bad day of fishing beats a good day in the office.” On rare occasions an issue would arise that was my fault or the result of something I could control. Knots would pull while fighting a fish, equipment would fail, and bait would run out; however, these to me were always opportunities to dazzle my Clients. Take the following example as illustration of what I mean.
A lawyer and his wife came down to the Keys from Tallahassee to do some fly-fishing. It was summertime and we had to be on the water before sunrise, since the heat of the mid-day sun made fishing unbearable. The trip started off well, and we made small talk as we motored to our fishing spot, some 10 miles from where we launched the boat. As we approached the fishing grounds, I had a bad feeling that I had forgotten something. Glancing around the boat, the sickening realization hit me that what I had forgotten was the fishing tackle. No fly rods, no reels, and no chance to catch a fish. As I announced my error to my Clients, their disappointment was clearly visible, since my mistake had meant that fishing that morning was shot. Somehow I had to make amends for my error.
On the way to the fishing grounds, they had mentioned how they had once been snorkeling and loved it. I offered to meet them back at my boat late in the morning for a day of snorkeling gratis, and then to try fishing again that evening when the bite would again heat up. They agreed, and we had a full day on the water of exploring the reef in late morning and afternoon, followed by some excellent fishing in the evening. By the end of the day, my error of the morning had been forgiven, and I even was given a very generous tip for my extra efforts. Afterward, they became regular Clients of mine, returning several times a year to fish (though never letting me forget the time I forgot the fishing rods).
The point is that no one, no matter how good at providing outstanding service, can be perfect. We will always make mistakes that impact our customers in a negative way. What really makes for outstanding customer service is how you make it right. When you give your Clients a lemon, take them snorkeling on a coral reef!
Rogue Mystery Shoppers
Many companies choose to employ mystery shoppers and mystery shopping companies to ensure their employees are offering the best and most reliable service they can. Firms improve the customer service they offer, shoppers earn money, and sometimes employees even receive bonuses based on their performance with these secret shoppers.
Sometimes, however, this system works in a different way. Occasionally, the mystery shopper is not contracted by a mystery shopping firm or even the business entity itself. These shoppers can be self-driven, media-related, or even government-employed.
Apple Inc. is known for their brand image and well-constructed products. Apple Stores are clean and organized and employees are trusted resources for all things Apple. Trevor Middleton of TechRadar.com – a source for news, reviews, and in-depth analysis of computers, phones and gadgets – got wind that Apple Geniuses were anything but. He conducted his own mystery shopping experiment to test the knowledge, abilities, and professionalism offered by Apple Store employees dedicated to solving problems with all Apple products. Middleton’s widely read results were honest and relatively unbiased, showing that the Genius he observed was difficult to understand and helpful only with basic problems. His research represents society’s growing desire for transparency. Consumers now Google products and read customer reviews before stepping foot in a store. Bad news has always traveled faster than good, and it’s getting faster every day. [via TechRadar]
Unlike Tom Middleton, Mary Portas is not interested in focusing on one company or store. Portas is an acclaimed retail and brand communication consultant. She is also the star of the BBC program Mary Queen of Shops, in which she works to help owners revitalize their struggling or failing businesses, and Mary Portas: Secret Shopper, in which she sets out to “get shoppers the service they deserve.” On Portas’ expansive website, she allows readers to become secret shoppers by sharing their customer service reviews. The site boasts that more than 12,000 secret shoppers have filed reports and it is clear that Mary Portas has become a widely recognized and trusted source on customer service. [via Mary Portas]
One important distinction to make, however, is that Mary Portas’s shoppers are not truly mystery shoppers, but are rather offering voluntary customer satisfaction information. While still valuable, this information is generally not as reliable as information reported by mystery shoppers. Put simply, a consumer who provides customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction information) in this format will typically only speak up if treated exceptionally or exceptionally poorly. This information may also be very general and of little help to the business. Mystery shopping companies will work with a business to ensure that shoppers are answering specific questions that offer the most utilizable information for the business.
Occasionally, secret shopping is serious business, as was the case last summer when the Congress’s investigative wing – the Government Accountability Office – utilized mystery shoppers posing as potential college students to investigate “fraudulent, deceptive or otherwise questionable marketing practices” engaged in by for-profit colleges (both privately owned and publicly traded). These undercover investigators posed as students while interacting with employees at fifteen for-profit colleges. The damning results revealed that all fifteen institutions were suspect to major violations, including encouraging students to submit fraudulent financial information, excessive contact of interested students, providing false information on accreditation, institution costs and student outcomes, incentive compensation, and more. Employees at these colleges are accused of using “high pressure marketing techniques” and scolding undercover applicants for “refusing to enroll before speaking with financial aid.” [via InsideHigherEd]
Again, this example is not a typical mystery shopping situation and the difference is all the difference. Mystery shopping is a tool that is best used as a carrot, rather than a stick. Managers and owners can discover the best practices of their employees and potentially reward excellent performance. Mystery shoppers, mystery shopping companies, businesses and consumers all want the same thing: better customer service. Mystery shopping is best used as a tool to make improvements, not to reprimand or “catch” poor service or behavior.
Each case represents possible outcomes for businesses and institutions that struggle to meet service standards that the public demands more and more every day. The GAO’s undercover students, Tom Middleton, and Mary Portas are all atypical mystery shoppers working as something of a last resort to help their fellow man to demand better conditions for consumers worldwide.
No Roses on Valentine’s Day
We have a little flower shop here in Perrysburg. It's a block from my house, and I buy a lot of flowers and other stuff there. For the past several years on Valentine's Day, I walk in and buy a dozen roses for my lovely wife Lori. This year, when I arrived mid-afternoon and asked for a dozen roses, I was told by the lady who's always there, "We're all out" (I think she may own it; she's usually there when I go in, but she's never tried to build any relationship with me, so I'm not really sure. That may be a future discussion).
It was mid-afternoon. No smile. No apology. Not a tone of empathy. No attempt to sell me anything else. I was dumbfounded and did a quick mental recap: Valentine's Day - check. Mid-afternoon, not during the after-work "rush" many businesses get from frantic, forgetful husbands, when I might expect to find them out of things - check. I was trying to spend money at a local business where I'm a regular customer - check. Another trip into a place I often find myself: Bizarro Service Land. Maybe I notice more because I own a mystery shopping business. Maybe it's just that some people don't see the obvious when it's right in front of them.
Now, I'm open to the possibility that the flower business may be tough (find me one that isn't!). Flowers are fickle, and don't always stay alive as long as you expect. It's probably tough to predict walk-in business (but not impossible). But, what's the true cost of running out of flowers on one of the top sales days of the year? It's such short-sighted, non-customer-focused thinking that I still can't believe it.
If not the biggest, Valentine's Day is certainly in the top three sales days for flower shops, right? Shouldn't owners want to sell us as much as possible on those days? Aren't roses still Numero Uno on Valentine's Day? By far? Don't they worry about things like: "If I don't have enough, and my customers have to go to a competitor today, will they ever come back?" Don't they think one day past today? Isn't a service business supposed to, at some point, service their customers? In my book, this means that your customers' needs come first, not yours. THAT is what solidifies customers to long-term loyalty.
Couldn't they get tons of free word-of-mouth advertising by selling the excess very cheaply, or even just giving it away, to the last few customers that day? What if they advertised a "Twice As Nice, Day After Valentine's Sale" and offered roses at 25% of the cost on Valentine's Day (only for the excess)?
If they can't be happy, appreciative and customer-focused on Valentine's Day, when can they? Don't small shopkeepers need to think this way in order to avoid extinction? Get out of the box. Differentiate. Serve.
Ron Welty elected Vice President of Mystery Shopping Providers Association Board of Directors
Perrysburg, OH– Ron Welty, president of IntelliShop, a national mystery shopping and customer experience measurement firm, has been elected vice president of the board of directors for the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA). The MSPA is the largest professional trade association dedicated to improving service quality, with over 400 member companies worldwide.
“I am really honored to continue my service on the MSPA board of directors, and to be elected vice president,” said Welty. “This is an exciting year for MSPA. Business for our member companies is bouncing back very strongly, with clients seeking every advantage in measuring and improving their customer experiences. I’m committed to helping spread the word so that even more clients will know the value that a mystery shopping program can bring to them, and why they should select an MSPA member for those programs.”
IntelliShop has been a member of the MSPA since 2000 and Welty has served on its Board of Directors for six years. The MSPA board of directors and its officers are elected annually by the full MSPA membership. The four officer positions – president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary – are also elected annually by the membership. For more information, visit http://www.mysteryshop.org/about/board.php
ABOUT INTELLISHOP: IntelliShop is a national mystery shopping and customer experience measurement firm dedicated to helping clients understand and improve what happens at the moment-of-truth with their customers. IntelliShop offers mystery shopping evaluations, video mystery shopping, customer satisfaction research, analytics and consultation, brand audits, and employee incentive programs. IntelliShop selects from a panel of more than 410,000 evaluators to help companies measure and improve their customer experiences onsite, on the phone, and on the web. For more information, call 877-894-6349 or visit www.intelli-shop.com
ABOUT THE MSPA: The MSPA is the largest professional trade association dedicated to improving service quality using anonymous resources. With over 400 member companies worldwide, its diverse membership includes companies that specialize in providing mystery shopping services, as well as market research and merchandising companies, private investigation firms, and training organizations. MSPA member companies work with their clients to establish mechanisms to measure and improve levels of service. For more information visit www.mysteryshop.org