Implementing best practice policies, employing experienced managers and being hands-on all go a long way toward managing quality assurance, but hiring professional mystery shoppers to see how things really run when you're not around is still a tried-and-true method for maintaining high standards.
Like most industries, the mystery shopper business has been impacted by technology in both positive and negative ways. With the advent of online review websites and an increase in low-cost mystery shopping companies, there have never been more ways for busy entrepreneurs to get third-party feedback on customer service, but sometimes too much information can be paralyzing. If you're considering hiring a mystery shopper, but you're not sure where to start or how a professional assessment service will differ from the customer feedback you already receive online, this guide is for you.
Mystery shoppers in the era of online reviews
The popularity of websites like Yelp has drastically changed the way business owners in service-related industries receive customer feedback, and many SMBs feel lost as to how much stock they should put into online reviews. While most entrepreneurs agree that consistent negative reviews, especially those that critique the same issue, shouldn't be ignored, the veracity of negative one-off reviews can be difficult to determine, and conflicting accounts of service experiences are often confusing. For these reasons, many SMB owners still employ mystery shoppers (or mystery diners, mystery clients, etc.).
In addition to offering a fresh take on service, professional mystery shoppers bring a lot to the table that online customer reviews don't. One major issue with using online customer feedback to inform future decisions is a lack of industry knowledge. For example, a reviewer might say they received bad service in your store because an item was out of stock. While stock issues should absolutely be addressed, it's hardly the fault of the sales associate, even though the customer may blame them specifically (in some cases going so far as to physically describe them online or name them outright). Similar issues happen with online food service reviews, wherein nonprofessional reviewers ream waitstaff for long wait times or poorly executed food, when the real issue may be in the kitchen or with the way the front of the house is being managed.
The main advantage to employing professional mystery shoppers is that they are first and foremost professionals. Reputable companies hire mystery shoppers because they have a keen attention to detail, high standards, and most importantly, experience in the industry. Thus, rather than considering websites like Yelp to be a replacement for professional assessment services, online reviews should be considered as just one part of the QA puzzle.
Fighting online mystery shopper scams
The online culture of leaving reviews for everything from boutiques to insurance companies has led many people to believe they have what it takes to become a professional customer service assessor. Because of this, the online landscape is cluttered with scam mystery shopper companies that promise jobs to inexperienced reviewers, often in exchange for one-time registration fees. SMB owners who hire these fake companies can end up spending a pretty penny for substandard services (if services are ever rendered at all).
To combat these scam services and promote industry training standards for QA specialists, organizations like the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) have formed. The MSPA is a global association dedicated to creating professional standards and ethics throughout the mystery shopping industry, in addition to raising awareness among service providers and business consumers regarding best practices. The MSPA has 450 member companies worldwide and offers SMB owners free access to a search tool for reputable mystery shopper companies, which can be filtered by need and region.
For SMB owners who want to hire mystery shoppers, tools like those provided by the MSPA are invaluable, and there is no reason not to use them. By utilizing resources from professional organizations and cross-checking mystery shopper companies with the Better Business Bureau, SMBs can easily avoid wasting time and money on subpar services.
Mystery shopping technology
Mystery shopping services employ high-tech methods for capturing information and for verifying and standardizing the mystery shopping process, which means better data for SMBs.
Many companies now utilize geotracking to ensure mystery shoppers are going where they say they're going, and most QA reports are now submitted via mobile applications, which means SMBs get shoppers' feedback faster. Inputting QA information in an app, rather than writing it out or filling out a stagnant web form, also allows the business owners who hire mystery shoppers to request very specific feedback.
For example, an entrepreneur who owns a chain of auto supply stores might notice an uptick in online complaints regarding the tire department in one of her three store locations. This individual might then request an in-depth mystery shopper report specifically about the customer service in that tire department at that specified store location. This type of customized service was historically only accessible for enterprise-level companies that could pay top dollar for a fleet of specially trained mystery shoppers, but now, thanks to improved technology, it's affordable for much of the SMB set.
Better reporting is also a side effect of digitized QA assessments, and if you're in the market for a mystery shopper company, one of the first things you should ask for is a sample report. The more sophisticated companies out there may direct you to a business user portal online where you then filter through mystery shopper assessments over time in a dynamic dashboard. Often video and audio files of mystery shopper encounters can be stored alongside reports, which further enhance the experience of receiving feedback and gives the business owner an up-close and personal look at customer service.
Online feedback from customers is valuable, but it's not the only way – or even the best way – to find out how your business functions when you're not there. Assuming you complete your due diligence when selecting a mystery shopper company, these professional services can provide you with the detailed insight you need to make better process and hiring decisions.