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How To Select A Mystery Shopping Company

by Ron Welty, Founder & Chief Client Officer

Organizations often ask, “How do we know if this is a viable company?” when interviewing mystery shopping companies. There are many different factors organizations should take into consideration when making their decision.

The biggest factor for many, unfortunately, is money. Too often, companies simply pick the cheapest price upfront and end up paying a much bigger price for it down the road. On the other end of the spectrum are organizations who invest their time and resources to seek a company with whom they can truly develop a long-term relationship. These are the clients who tend to see the greatest ROI and the reason why it’s so important to do your due diligence before partnering with a mystery shopping company.

Mystery Shop Checklist

Whatever your reason for considering mystery shopping, the right partner has the potential to provide you with valuable customer experience insights. Follow these guidelines to make an informed decision when vetting mystery shopping companies.

Request a quote

Like most business partnerships, when you begin shopping around for a mystery shopping company, you put in a request for proposal. While many will then automatically toss out the proposals with the highest quotes, we recommend taking that figure with a grain of salt.

Consider this: When you pick a company based on the cheapest price, you really do get what you pay for. Would you select your brain surgeon based on the lowest price? Of course, mystery shopping companies don’t perform life-or-death surgery, but organizations do rely on mystery shopping companies and their insights to determine their managers’ and associates’ performance reviews, incentive plans, bonuses, and more. It’s important information that can have a greater effect on your customer experience.

Consider the selection of a mystery shopping partner in the same vein as your other professional services partners, such as your accountants, law firm, advertising agency, social media partner, web programmers, and so on. Again, these aren’t life-and-death, but you didn’t select them for their cheap prices—you chose them based on their merit. In the mystery shopping and customer experience business, you simply can’t do great work at the cheapest price, and it will eventually catch up with you.

Assess services

You might think mystery shopping is standard across the board, but the truth is, not every company handles it the same. Look for a mystery shopping company with robust programs that include onsite and online mystery shopping, telephone mystery shopping, and video mystery shopping. You’ll also want to consider additional services like compliance audits, voice of customer programs, and competitor evaluations for a holistic picture of your customer experience. These programs should only be designed to provide a positive ROI.

Remember, you’re not just looking to hire a mystery shopping company—you want to partner with one. Do they work well with others? Have the company walk you through their process for developing your mystery shopping program.

Don’t forget to ask what happens after the shop happens. Does the company simply dump a bunch of numbers at your doorstep and leave the rest to you? Or, do they take the time to explain the results through story-like reporting and provide actionable insights? Even the most comprehensive data is useless if you don’t understand what to do with it.

Evaluate mystery shoppers

Not everyone is cut out to be a mystery shopper. Make sure the mystery shopping company only employs certified field evaluators, video evaluators, and Internet experience experts to ensure you’ll receive the right feedback you need.

Along the same lines, not every mystery shopper is cut out for every job. How will mystery shoppers be selected for your program? You need to make sure the right people are being selected and they match your customer demographic. Your fast food mystery shopper shouldn’t be the same person sent to a luxury car dealership.

Verify finances

Not all mystery shopping companies have the ability to stay in it for the long haul. In fact, some clients have panic set in after their mystery shopping company ceased operations with little notice. It’s a stressful situation you never want to find yourself.

Ask the company to provide you with the past three years’ financial statements. If they won’t provide it, it could be a red flag. Once you receive their information, review it with your financial advisors to assess the company’s standing.

Do they have a line of credit with a bank that can be utilized if they need it? If so, how much is it, and when does it either renew or expire? If they don’t even have one, or a legitimate alternative capital stream, it could indicate they are either very small in size, which is risky if you’re a larger organization, and/or have financial issues that preclude them from qualifying for one. 

Ask for references

When hiring associates, you typically ask the job candidates to provide a list of references. The same tactic should apply to the mystery shopping companies you’re considering. It’s important to ask for a list of client references. 

In addition to asking the references about the service capabilities of the company, ask about any financial issues. Do they get hounded the first day after an invoice isn’t paid on time (indicating potential cash shortages and overall weakness)? Do they receive calls directly from mystery shoppers claiming they haven’t been paid by the company? Do they have any other indications they can share of whether the mystery shopping company is financially sound or weak?

Additionally, you’ll also want to obtain letters of reference from their accountant (if they even have one), bank, and landlord (again, if they have one). Read these documents carefully to see if they are fully supportive and express confidence in their viability or show signs of being hedgy and wishy-washy in describing their position and relationships.

Look at associations

The Better Business Bureau and industry trade associations can provide excellent insight into the way the mystery shopping company handles relationships. Check their BBB rating. Not all viable companies have A+ or A ratings.

While it’s common for mystery shoppers to complain when they haven’t been paid, it’s usually because they simply didn’t do the required work. However, no complaints could indicate that it’s a very small company and may be financially risky. If a mystery shopping company does have complaints, dig deeper to see what they are. If a company just ignores the complaints or has a string of recent complaints with no explanation, those could indicate that something is financially amiss.

The Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) is the U.S.-based, international trade association for the mystery shopping industry and can be a great resource to learn more about the company if they’re a member. Call the association and ask whether the company you’re evaluating is in good standing and if there have been complaints from clients or mystery shoppers. Not being a member could be a red flag.

Plan a visit

Emails and phone calls can only go on for so long. Sometimes, the best way to get to know a company is by visiting in person. You’ll put a face to their name and get a better feel for who they are as people. When you arrive, take in your surroundings. What impression does their office give? Does it come across as a well-funded, professional organization?

In-person visits are also great to make sure the company has an actual office. You’d be surprised how many don’t, and how many try to pass off a shared business-suites address and photo of that building as “theirs.”

Find the Right Partner

Vetting a company’s financial viability doesn’t take much time and shouldn’t slow down your selection process. However, it will save you considerable time and headache if you make the wrong choice and have to scramble to find a new one in a great rush.  

IntelliShop is founded on creating extraordinary customer experiences and is committed to delivering results that help our clients succeed. Unlike other mystery shopping companies, we only design custom mystery shopping programs that provide positive ROI. But we don’t stop there. Our detailed, story-like InSite™ reports help you understand exactly how to help your business go from good to great. That’s why some of the world’s best-known brands trust their mystery shopping to us.

Contact us today to request a quote and see how our mystery shopping solutions can help your business.