tabsurvey blog

Best Alternatives to Mystery Shopping

4 reasons mystery shopping is dead and best alternatives to mystery shopping

In today’s blog post I’ll discuss why I believe that mystery shopping is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s retail world. I’ll also touch upon what the best alternatives to mystery shopping are.

 

What is mystery shopping?

I used to work for a company that was in the business of mystery shopping. For those of you who don’t know want mystery shopping is let me explain.  It’s a way to investigate if a physical store is living up to certain KPIs or standards. The KPIs could be service levels, store interior or if certain procedures were followed. Questions like “How well did the sales representative ask open-ended questions” or “How did the sales representative present alternatives for the customer that fit customer needs” would be quite typical questions.

Often well-renowned companies would pay mystery shoppers to appear unannounced (it’s a mystery shopper, remember?) to make a purchase or at least pretend they would.

mystery shopping kpi

After the visit, the shopper would write down his or her report based on the predefined KPIs and questions. Once these were noted down on paper outside the store, she would find a computer and enter the data in a web form. The end result would be a report to be presented to service executives and store managers.

I remember the hassle of working with the network of shoppers. Sometimes I would have to ask distant family members for favors, because a shopper had made a last minute cancellation. Sometimes I would even have to make the long drive to a location myself just to make the fake purchase. However, the service was quite popular for retail companies in particular.

 

Mystery Shopping as a performance tool

Many companies would use the reports to set up balanced score card reports. These would in turn be used for employee incentive programs and bonus payments.

mystery shopping quality management

Quite unfair, in some instances, as the store personnel often knew what the mystery shopper looked like, because it often would be the same shoppers for specific retail chains, or because the shopper always appeared at the exact same period of the month, or in the same vehicle and presented themselves in non-credible way.

An example could be a mystery shopper paying a BMW dealership a surprise visit on a bike. He would even into the store with his bicycle helmet still on! Of course he could have just won the lottery, and then decided to upgrade his means of transportation, but then again those odds are pretty slim at best. Sometimes the store would complain internally, arguing (rightfully) that the customer wasn’t credible enough.

 

Selling mystery shopping back in the day

However, there was no alternative back then, so the mystery shopping reports sold quite well. They could also be used as a door opener for new business. The telephone conversation would go something like this: “Good morning, sir/madam. I’m calling from xx. I wanted to let you know that we recently visited three of your stores in X area. Our mystery shoppers discovered some interesting patterns in the service experience in these stores, which we would like to share with you in a meeting. For free – no strings attached”.

If the potential client accepted (and they often did), then we would need to go and make those mystery visits happen (because obviously we didn’t make that investment, before it was necessary), and prepare a report. And quite often we would land the client for more mystery shopping business or, even better, some consulting work.

 

The future for mystery shopping

So what does the future look like for mystery shopping? Well, here at tabsurvey we believe its part of a dying breed for four reasons:

1. Fake customers

Firstly, there’s the issue of asking real vs. fake customers. Most retailers would surely like the opinion of real customers rather than that of a fake customer. Bearing in mind that there are questions you couldn’t possibly ask a real customer – like:

  • “Were all lights in the store lit?”
  • “Did the sales person wear a visible nametag?” or
  • “Did the sales person try to up-sell?”

questions for mystery shopper– all questions that, although relevant for an audit, most real world customers either would not want to or would not feel comfortable answering. So I guess if the questions that a company wants to have answered are mostly concerned with store audit or internal standards and procedures (that no real customers care about), then they should definitely continue using mystery shopping.

mystery shopping survey questions

2. High cost

Secondly, there’s the cost involved. In a mystery shopping context, there’s human effort and billable hours involved. Ten years ago in Denmark, an average, fairly uncomplicated mystery shopping visit would cost anything between €100-€150 per visit (roughly $120-$175), which, compared to the investment for an iPad Survey Kiosk App system, would pay a software license for 8 months (assuming €19 per month). Then you also need some hardware, but still it, by far, outweighs the cost of mystery shopping.

3. Low feedback volume

Thirdly, there’s the sheer volume of responses. Based on our data, it’s reasonable to assume a hit rate of between 1-3 percent in high volume traffic retail outlets. Assuming traffic in a store is 1,000 visits per month, wouldn’t you rather be getting between 10 and 30 responses than just a single?

4. Feedback lag

Finally, there’s the timing issue. Having worked with establishing sound feedback cultures in organizations in my prior work life, I know that getting feedback on your behavior, that stretches more than a few weeks back, simply doesn’t have any impact in terms of changing behavior. So what’s the point if, as an employee, you’re receiving feedback on your ability to ask relevant open-ended questions, if that experience lies back one month. It doesn’t make much sense.

For all these reasons it’s therefore important to identify the best alternatives to mystery shopping. We’ll address that briefly below.

 

Best Alternatives to Mystery Shopping

So it’s good news that since the 90s and 00s, great alternatives have become available. Today, one of the best alternatives to mystery shopping for retail is in-store surveys. They have become quite popular, as they offer real customer feedback in real-time, and in a much more cost-effective way.

best alternatives to mystery shopping

Systems that engage with the customer via their phone, or through tablet-based or kiosk-based platforms are also becoming increasingly popular. Proprietary systems with mechanical buttons are also getting market share, offering a more simple (and less demanding) input from respondents, but simultaneously also giving less degrees of freedom in the type of survey your want to give your customers. Finally, there’s the transactional or post-purchase-surveys that are effective, but only focus solely on the purchaser and not the non-purchasers.

 

 

 

 

We hope you found this month’s post interesting. Please post a comment below if you have something on your mind.

 

Customer Happiness Or Not

“Were you happy or not with your experience today?”

You have probably been asked this question on more than one occasion. Either when you were doing your shopping online or visiting a physical store or outlet.

 

The trend of having a device placed near the exit of a store has come to stay. You meet them in airports, on gas stations and convenience stores and many other places. It’s a trend that has evolved rapidly for various reasons: For one, it signals to the customer that: “Hey, we care about you as our customer”, which I guess is a good thing. It also gives the surveyor (e.g. the retailer) some sort of indication of how the store is doing in terms of customer satisfaction – i.e. were they happy or not. Also, quite nifty if you want to run a successful business.

Asking is committing

However, there are some issues that are inherent to this way to interacting with the customer. When someone is asked about his or her experience, and experience wasn’t all that great, then as a customer or a respondent, you expect your experience to change for the better the next time you visit the store. For instance, let’s assume you went to a store to purchase a pair of pants, and they didn’t have your size. On the way out you’re asked about your experience on one of those smiley stands. You look around to see if anyone is watching before you smack the red angry smiley with your hand.

are customers happy or notLater that week, the store manager reviews the answers of the week, and notices your negative response. But she also thinks to herself: “Our average score is up from the week before, so I guess the new displays we had installed really worked!”

You go back to the store the following week, only to find that the store still doesn’t have your size. The disconnect between question and answer is obvious, nevertheless the smiley stand is more popular than ever.

The missing link

In our view, the appropriate way to interact with the visiting customer is obviously to ask about the shopping experience. But it’s also important to have a follow-up question to understand the why. Why was the customer happy or not, what was missing? What could be done to improve the experience?

customer happiness

From my experience in working with retailers over the past 11 years, I know that if you want to work with a KPI – for instance customer satisfaction, it’s not enough to measure it. You also need to understand specifically how to improve it. Does the store need to staff up during peak periods? Do they need to be more attentive to product range and availability? Does staff meet the customers in a friendly and helpful way? Does anyone really care about the new displays? The list goes on, and you really won’t know, if you don’t ask.

 

 

You can seek inspiration on what great questions to ask in this voice of the customer case, or in this blog post. Be sure to also visit this guide on how to avoid typical pitfalls when placing your device in the store.

 

The learning curve of curious organisations

Background

I have worked with retail organizations over the past 10 years. In that time I have come to learn a few things about the dynamics within them. In this blog post, I want to shed light on what happens when curious organisations start new customer experience projects. Initial high focus from C-level management and well-meaning intentions from many places in the organisation can often lead to misguided attempts to acquire information about your customers. The consequence being fewer answers harvested, too complex data sets and – more importantly, annoyed customers. The objective of this blog entry is to share some of our experiences. Hopefully it will also inspire curious organisations to reflect on the findings below and maybe stay clear of the pitfalls.

New project, new interest

Many of you have probably tried this: Your organisation is on the verge of implementing new technology. Many people involve themselves in order to have impact on the implementation because it’s new and it has management’s attention. This new technology could be a physical, in-store feedback system like tabsurvey.

curious organisations

All of the necessary hardware, software and services are in place in order to roll out the system. Now it’s time to decide what to ask your customers. People from HR are involved. They want to know how customers feel about the store employees’ ability to assist the customers. The sales department are keen to find out if the customers were offered any complementary products and accessories. Store operations want to learn if the customers like the new store merchandising and marketing thinks it’s pivotal to understand if the customers came by because of the latest Facebook campaign.

In this setup curious organisations that are large and consensus-driven struggle to keep a specific focus for the survey. The result is – unfortunately – a compromise. Everybody gets a chance to influence the questionnaire, and the influences are many. In our time working with retail clients, we have seen surveys with 30 questions – all pointing in different directions. Not exactly the kind of survey that a visiting customer would answer quickly while shopping.

The customers suffer

“Feedback is a gift” as they say. So why make it so difficult to give it? Customers that genuinely want to give some feedback on the experience they’ve had are often facing lengthy surveys that focus on everything from their socio-economic status to whether or not they were able to locate the new organic products.

 

listen to the customer

The result is both low completion rates and the risk of annoying the hell out of your customer. You may even risk impacting your cNPS (Customer Net Promoter Score) negatively, which seems futile, considering the entire point of the project in the first place.

We have heard of examples where companies – in addition to asking their customers more than 20 questions, also demanded that each and every respondent give up their full name, email address and telephone number. But why? Would the customer’s experience be less valid because they were anonymous? In today’s IOT reality with transactional surveys popping up everywhere and surveys embedded on most websites, the competition for the respondent’s time is fierce. Therefore, each moment of time that you ask from your customer, should be well worth their time. That means that they should have a valid opinion about the topic and feel that they are really making a difference to the surveyor (you).

Less action, more talk

Less action and more talk may not be the ideal outcome of a customer experience management project, but none the less this could be the end result. Long surveys produce even longer datasets. Due to the many focus areas, too many people are involved in interpreting the results, creating a sense of shared responsibility. And as we all know if everybody shares the responsibility then eventually nobody owns up to it.

Take-aways for curious organisations

Conducting surveys should never become an objective in itself. They should merely serve as a necessary means to reach an objective. “Well obviously”, many will say, but in large organisations things have away of getting complex very fast, due to inherent nature of the organisation itself.

The assertive project leader should be asking herself and her group:

  • “What’s the purpose of this project?”
  • “What do we want to accomplish or avoid with the information this survey will give us?”
  • “How do we act on it, in order to make the necessary changes?”

Well, although these are valid questions, project leaders often don’t ask them because they are hard to answer and could in turn lead to even more comprehensive projects. In order to try to counter some if these driving forces, we have gathered some recommendations for curious organisations in the following.

  • Keep your survey short and focused. Read more about this topic in this blog
  • When changing focus of a survey, be sure to keep one or two baseline questions that you always ask. This will ensure continuity in your surveys over time. The questions should be key to your operational goals and support your overall business strategy (e.g. for a fast food restaurant: “Was your meal warm when you received it?” or “Did our staff meet you with a smile today?”)
  • Place your survey in convenient places for the respondent (customer)
  • Be sure that customer surveys stay top-of-mind in your organisation by involving key stakeholders and distributing relevant, easy-to-translate reporting to management and the customer-facing colleagues.

 

Be sure to tune back in again soon!

 

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