Mystery shopping may soon be a thing of the past.
We’ve spoken with hundreds of organisations while building TRACX; from independent retailers to multinational corporations. We have heard from business owners and CX leaders who are frustrated with mystery shopping. They are unhappy with the limitations and want better ways to measure customer experiences.
In this post, we’ll discuss why mystery shopping is no longer a good choice for businesses that care about customer experience. But first, let’s take a look at how the mystery shopper market boomed into the $2bn industry it is today.
The History of Mystery Shopping
The term “mystery shopping” was first used in the 1940s when banks and retail businesses hired undercover detectives to monitor the integrity of employees and prevent internal theft.
The mystery shopping industry as we’d know it didn’t really take off until the 1970s when retailers and financial services started to benchmark sales and marketing performance using yearly reporting from mystery shoppers. The primary goal changed from monitoring employee dependability to measuring the customer service experience.
In the 1980s, businesses began to focus more on the quality of service, and Mystery Shoppers became the most common technique to assess it. The survey methodologies became more advanced, with researchers starting to ask highly specific questions and developing different standards and norms to establish a benchmark for service quality.
The trend continued into the 90s with the first publication of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), the only national cross-industry customer satisfaction index in the United States, in 1994. Before the ACSI, no nationwide measure of quality from the user’s perspective existed.
The Mystery Shopper Industry Today
Fast forward to today, and mystery shoppers aren’t such a mystery anymore. The industry has ballooned into a $2bn market, with over 1.5 million active mystery shoppers worldwide.
Mystery shoppers are used by businesses of all sizes around the world to measure service quality, ensure compliance with brand standards and regulations, and assess customer experience.
The industry has not escaped the Internet and the wave of digital transformation. Paper surveys are being replaced by online surveys and the use of mobile devices to shop, survey, take pictures, videos, and notes.
Today, 9 out of 10 businesses compete mainly on customer experience. It’s no wonder that companies are desperate to find new ways to measure and improve their customer experience. With limited options available, many companies turned to mystery shopping to get the answers they needed and mystery shoppers were established as an industry-standard CX tool.
But the market is changing rapidly and we’re seeing a shift in how businesses view the use of mystery shoppers as part of their CX strategy.
The Problems with Mystery Shopping
Despite mystery shopping’s widespread use, many businesses are finding critical flaws when it comes to using mystery shoppers to measure customer experience.
To remain competitive, business leaders today demand actionable insights based on genuine consumer feedback. They want to understand how they’re performing against their competitors and what’s driving the customer experience.
Widespread smartphone adoption and unlimited data plans have put the power back into the hands of customers. They have access to more information than ever before, allowing them to compare businesses and make informed decisions.
The same technologies that have empowered customers are also arming businesses with the ability to collect feedback in real-time and analyse it immediately. It’s now easier than ever to understand what real customers are thinking and feeling.
This is where mystery shoppers begin to fall short. But not the only reason that businesses are starting to question the use of mystery shoppers.
Here are just some of mystery shopping’s problems that businesses have identified:
Mystery shoppers are researchers and auditors, not real customers.
This is the most common complaint we heard from CX professionals.
Since they’re not real customers, mystery shoppers can’t provide feedback on how real customers perceive and experience the brand. Instead, they provide feedback on how employees perform when a mystery shopper is present.
Mystery shopping is an audit tool suited to measuring compliance with brand standards, not customer experience.
Mystery shopper reports can take weeks to complete and deliver.
Despite technological improvements, this continues to be a frustration for many companies.
Mystery shoppers are not able to provide real-time feedback, which means businesses have to wait weeks for a report that may or may not be relevant to the current customer experience challenges.
The time it takes to get feedback from mystery shoppers is a major barrier to using them as part of an agile CX strategy.
Mystery shopping is too expensive for most businesses.
Most companies that we spoke with performed monthly or quarterly monthly shops.
Mystery shops are typically priced on a “per evaluation basis” with the cost varying greatly depending on the type of business, its location, and the complexity of the task. This can add up quickly, especially if a business wants to measure more than one experience or customer segment.
We spoke with a major high street brand with over 100 locations across the UK who told us that their mystery shopper program required 2 visits to each location, every month. The mystery shopping reports represented less than 0.01% of customers who made a purchase every month, yet they were supposed to be the source of truth for the brand’s in-store customer experience.
Employees will try to identify and manipulate mystery shoppers.
This is a problem for any customer feedback mechanism, but it’s particularly problematic with mystery shoppers.
Employees are often able to identify when they are being shopped and can adapt their behaviour as a result. At best, you will find that your data has been manipulated. At worst, employees will be distracted playing “spot the mystery shopper” and their attention will be taken off serving customers.
This defeats the purpose of mystery shopping as a means to measure the customer experience.
Making changes to the mystery shopping survey is impossible after the program has been started.
This complaint was raised numerous times by companies we spoke with.
Once a mystery shopping program is underway, it’s often impossible to make changes to the survey. If the business discovers that certain questions need to be changed, they will have to wait until the next round of mystery shops.
Without the ability to make changes, businesses are stuck with reports that don’t represent their customer experience strategy and goals.
Alternatives to Mystery Shoppers
The good news is that there are plenty of alternatives to mystery shoppers.
The rise of dedicated customer experience solutions means that businesses can measure their CX in real-time, across all channels and customer touchpoints.
Companies can now gather hundreds or thousands of pieces of feedback every month, instead of relying on 1 or 2 mystery shopper evaluations.
This data is not only more accurate than mystery shopper feedback but it’s also delivered immediately after the interaction occurs so there are no delays between collecting the feedback and learning from it.
This is a breakthrough in customer experience research and has led most companies we spoke with to question the value of mystery shoppers. In fact, they’re now looking at ways that they can use these new tools as part of an agile CX strategy.
There are many new technologies that businesses can use to get feedback from customers, including:
Customer Experience Management Platforms
Customer experience management platforms (CXM) are the most robust and effective tools that businesses can use to measure their customer experience.
These platforms provide real-time feedback, segmentation, workflow management, action plans (and alerts), staff training modules (including videos) and more.
They are designed to help businesses understand their customer’s needs and wants, as well as track the progress of customer service improvements.
CXM platforms will quickly become an essential part of any business’ customer experience strategy.
Social Media Listening Tools
Another excellent way to measure the customer experience is through social media listening tools.
These tools allow businesses to see what customers are saying about them on social media. They also provide insights into customer sentiment, as well as the overall tone of the conversation.
The downside of social media listening tools is that they don’t enable you to ask the questions, you can only listen to what people are saying online.
Customer feedback surveys are another great way to gather customer insights that can then be used for an agile CX strategy.
Survey platforms, like Google Forms, are an easy way to collect feedback from customers about their experience with your business. The most effective survey platforms allow businesses to create customised, targeted questions and create surveys tailored to their needs.
This means you get more reliable data than mystery shoppers or social media listening tools, but you will need to analyse the data before you can make sense of it. This can be challenging, especially if you’re trying to analyse hundreds or thousands of responses.
QR Code Surveys
QR surveys are a new way to gather customer feedback that’s becoming very popular.
QR code surveys are best suited to brick and mortar businesses as they can be placed in physical locations, like menus or store displays. They provide businesses with data about what their customers enjoy (and don’t) about the experience they have at a business or in specific locations/venues.
The main challenges with QR code surveys are accurately tagging the feedback for analysis and managing the QR codes themselves. Because of this, it’s recommended to use a feedback platform that can manage the QR codes for you.
Employee Feedback Tools
One of the most overlooked sources of customer experience data is employee feedback.
Employee engagement tools don’t just give businesses insight into how happy employees are with their roles, the company culture, and management – they also provide customer-facing employees with a direct line of communication to share feedback about the customer experience.
By talking to your employees you can find out what they think about customers and what they would like to improve.
Customer Journey Mapping Tools
The final tool we’d recommend is customer journey mapping, which allows businesses to understand the customer experience in its entirety.
Customer journey mapping forces businesses to identify all the interactions a customer has with your business, from first contact to post-purchase. You can then begin collecting real customer feedback at key touchpoints to better understand and improve the experience.
The bottom line is that mystery shoppers are no longer the best way to understand and improve customer experience.
The benefits of using mystery shoppers are outweighed by the problems, which include their inability to provide real-time feedback, the tiny sample sizes, the costs involved, and the fact that employees can manipulate them.
With businesses able to monitor customer sentiment in real-time on social media and review sites, and collect genuine customer feedback at key touchpoints, there is no need to rely on expensive and outdated solutions like mystery shopping.