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 – 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

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

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

That’s Just The Way It Is

Bruce Hornsby famously sang, “That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change.” A younger generation of readers will recall those lyrics as they were sampled by 2pac some years ago, and the words are no less relevant now.

Dr. Chip Bell, an expert consultant on customer loyalty, has said that after a person is employed for about ninety days, he becomes blind to the details that his customers see. This accurately defines one primary function of mystery shoppers, but it also points out a risk that even mystery shoppers face.

When we become comfortable with our surroundings and the processes we go through, we fail to see where there is room for improvement. Businesses may miss simple ways in which they can improve the overall customer experience. That is one reason they will engage the services of a mystery shopping provider. Mystery shoppers can offer a fresh perspective and discover ways that the customer’s experience can be improved.

But be careful: many mystery shoppers take on a great number of assignments and repeat similar “shops” often. The risk with this approach is that they will simply complete assignment quickly without giving the full experience their undivided and focused attention. One way to prevent this and ensure a focused, meaningful evaluation every time is to frequently rotate mystery shoppers. IntelliShop’s Field Staff Coordinators (or Schedulers) strive to send a fresh pair of eyes almost every time a mystery shopper is sent on an assignment, especially when locations are visited frequently such as multiple times each month.

Thieves In Florida Provide A Better Customer Experience

An article in this week's Time Magazine describes how thieves are using more sophisticated techniques and technology for identity theft.  They steal ATM account numbers and PIN codes, then create new ATM cards and withdraw thousands of dollars from customers' accounts in a short amount of time.  Amazing, next-level thievery that we should all be careful to prevent (hint: use one hand to hide the other while entering your PIN).

The thing from this article that stuck with me, though, is that one set of thieves actually included a nice-looking, easy-to-read diagram of instructions for people on how to use their card in that ATM; the author said the bank's original facade didn't include those instructions.

What does it say about that bank's customer focus and experience that a ring of identity thieves provided the bank's customers with better information on how to use the ATM than the bank did?