Employing a Mystery Shopping Company – Your Questions Answered

April 14, 2023 in Mystery Shopping

Employing a Mystery Shopping Company – Your Questions Answered

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Mystery shopping. It’s the #1 practice for assessing whether your business lives up to its brand and customer promise. 

Armed with its powerful insights, businesses can revamp their customer service, overhaul employee engagement, spike satisfaction levels, maintain strict compliance and boost their top-line. The big question is: Where do you start?

In this article, we take an inside look at the purpose of mystery shopping, how it can be employed, and the long-term benefits it can bring to your business.

Person paying at checkout

What Is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping refers to the deployment of independent research participants (also known as mystery shoppers) into a business to assess brand interactions. Its purpose is to measure the delivered branch experience compared to the employer’s intended expectations, designed customer journey or brand promise.

As a practice, mystery shopping can assess anything that is relevant to the designed customer/employee experience. Audits can include: quality of sales and service, job performance, regulatory compliance, competitor analysis, stock availability, employee training and more. Essentially, mystery shopping can measure anything that relates to the investment and performance of an organization’s human capital.

Once a brand agent completes an assignment, they report back with their findings which are used to identify areas of success and opportunity. The employer is usually provided with a reporting framework and both quantitative and qualitative insights relating to their chosen metrics. 

People are the most important asset to any business and Mystery Shopping uniquely helps to quantify and create accountability around these important assets (Human Capital).  The metrics gathered from mystery shopping are “Leading Indicators” of the health of your business, and more importantly these metrics on human capital do not reside on a P&L or Balance Sheet (both of which are a retrospective or a Lagging Indicator).

Mystery shopper pretending to shop

How Do I Employ a Mystery Shopping Agency?

Looking for mystery shopping providers for the first time can be challenging. Many businesses have long-established relationships with research partners and rarely deviate. The retail and hospitality industries tend to find partners through word-of-mouth, with leaders typically recommending research agencies used by their previous employers. 

Some employers will choose to look online for a mystery shopping agency. This will likely bring them to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA), where the intent is to ensure research providers and participants meet an expected standard. The MSPA is always a good starting point. Their curated list of businesses has a degree of accreditation, helping employers avoid working with less reputable researchers.

Regardless of how you choose to make first contact, when trying to establish a vendor relationship, you should start cautiously. It is always advised to start with a small pilot project as a proof of concept. Not only will this give you a glimpse into a long-term partnership, but it will also prove whether their insights are truly meaningful to your brand. To be effective, mystery shopping has to have a framework that supports the employer’s objectives and goals. Asking a question and getting an answer is not enough.

How Do I Prepare for a Mystery Shopping Audit?

The most valuable starting point for any mystery shopping audit is deciding – and then measuring – what truly matters to your human experience. Brand experience research shouldn’t be an exercise in ‘gathering feedback’, it should be the building blocks toward a tangible business improvement strategy.

The ideal implementation will consider all Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are driving brand delivery. A detailed understanding of these KPIs is what differentiates a Brand Agent from a paid actor. Brand Agents are essentially deployed as an undercover CEO whose mission is to measure the meaningful, qualitative metrics that matter to the employer.

This will involve preparing collateral for knowledge transfer and ensuring that the mystery shopper (Brand Agent) can demonstrate their understanding of the designed experience. This may include how customers are greeted, the cleanliness standards of the location, employee dress-code and the behaviors of team members. 

For example, if a business is training its staff with ‘customer choreography’ during onboarding, it’s preparing them to behave in a way that aligns with their value proposition and customer expectations. Training can be an expensive process – and employers will want to see a return on their investment. Mystery shopping is simply a guaranteed method of measuring that. Therefore, by arming Brand Agents with these expected employee actions, they can more effectively assess those behaviors – or lack of. 

Such research questions can include:
  • “Did the associate greet you when you were within 1 metre?”
  • “Did the associate attempt to offer assistance to multiple customers?”
  • “Did the associate check your Identification?”
  • “Were HIPPA standards followed?”
Company meeting

How Much Does Mystery Shopping Cost?

The pricing of a mystery shopping initiative will depend on the size and scope of the audit being performed. Implementation fees can vary from between $500 to $3500, while the investment per audit can vary from $30 to $175 depending on certain variables and the measured behaviors.

Equally, commissioning a research initiative shouldn’t be seen as a ‘one-off’ cost. Mystery shopping is an investment. To continually reap the rewards of research, insights need to be updated and refreshed alongside changing buyer behaviors and demands. It isn’t enough to invest once and then consider your brand roadblocks as ‘permanently solved’.

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What Are the Benefits of a Mystery Shopping Initiative?

There are many valuable returns that a business can achieve by auditing its brand experience – both in terms of revenue and more qualitative takeaways. The overall intent of mystery shopping is to assess key areas of your business in an objective manner that translates directly into meaningful decision-making. The benefits available are as wide-ranging as the areas that can be measured.

Here are a few ways in which a business can benefit from employing a mystery shopping company:

Improves Employee Engagement

Receiving customer feedback on performance reveals to employees what should be prioritized in their customer service and engagement. Armed with this knowledge, employees can focus their energy on more meaningful behaviors, and limit their effort spent on actions that have little impact on brand delivery.

This, in effect, kills two birds with one stone. It increases employee focus on branded customer service, and improves productivity simultaneously. Equally, by reporting back on specific employee interactions, businesses can extract tangible insights about the way their team behaves toward potential buyers, and tailor their CX strategy with verified insights, coaching sessions and more.

Improves Customer Experience and Retention

Many of the KPIs that mystery shoppers audit directly impact customer experience. By directly measuring these metrics, and then improving on those that are lacking, a business can only better its customer service. Improved customer service in turn increases customer satisfaction, driving heightened levels of brand advocacy and repeat business.

By improving customer satisfaction, brands equally increase customer retention; happy customers are less likely to leave your business for a competitor, after all.

Enforces Compliance

Mystery shopping reveals how staff behave when they are unaware that they are being actively monitored. These observations are not meant to penalize but to reward an engaged team of frontline staff . A common use for mystery shopping is to assess whether your employees are complying with legal or franchise standards. By making staff aware that they may be assessed at any time, without their knowledge, businesses can prevent standards from slipping.

Additionally, mystery shopping gives employees a very material reason to be educated on product specifications and potential customer queries. It enables team members to get in the loop, stay in the loop and close the loop.

Increases the Effectiveness of Promotional Programs

The phrase “do you want fries with that” is the well-established catchphrase of the food service worker “Super Sizing”. Despite the image associated with it, it’s actually an example of a simple upsell, a very basic promotional program. It is so well-known because it has been so successful.

Even if it isn’t successful every time, if servers asked this question with every burger sold, the average transaction would increase, and with it, overall revenue.

But how could a business be certain this question was asked with every burger ordered? A promotional program’s effectiveness will only be known if it is deployed across the board. Simultaneously, an effective promotional program won’t have the desired impact if it’s only employed by 50% of locations.

Allows For Consistent Actionable Comparison with Other Metrics

Many brands are using Net Promoter Score (NPS) as an easy way to measure customer sentiment.  A mystery shopping program compliments NPS by adding an extra layer of depth to its numerical – and largely limiting – customer insights. 

Mystery Shopping audits will often take place domestically or globally over multiple countries, cities, locations. The data analytics received allows for more multifaceted comparisons to be made between locations and geographies that will support the consistent delivery of the brand value. This type of evaluation may show which locations need greater training, or reveal locations where customer experience is excellent, even if this isn’t reflected by sales figures.

A discrepancy between sales figures and mystery shop score could reveal locations being held back from greater sales by CX failings, or locations that are only being kept afloat by the quality of their CX. In either instance, brand receive feedback that will inform the decision made to revamp strategy and delivery.

Boosts Revenue

All the benefits above will achieve one thing, the overall aim of your business strategy – increasing your revenue and growing your business.

By increasing employee engagement, you can reduce employee turnover. This cuts the expenses associated with training new recruits and losses in efficiency from new staff that are not yet fully onboarded.

The enforcement of compliance with legal requirements reduces the risk of your company incurring fines, as well as the legal expenses involved in contesting potential fines. A more comprehensive deployment of promotional programs allows for better judgement of which programs impact sales positively. It also increases the positive impact the more effective ones have.

Comparing locations on KPIs other than sales figures provides greater insight as to why some are failing to perform. This understanding can help in identifying areas for improvement at those locations to boost their numbers. These comparisons can also reveal why other locations may be exceeding expectations. Plus, by identifying what is driving such a positive impact, these improvements can be rolled out across the board. 

Finally, by improving customer service, customer satisfaction will be enhanced. Happier customers will boost customer retention, and repeat customers statistically spend 67% more per transaction than first-time buyers.

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Final Thoughts

Employing a mystery shopping company should not be looked at as a cost, but as an investment. Used correctly, mystery shopping is an incredibly powerful tool to ensure brand delivery strategies are implemented in the way that is intended. 

Over the last 35 years, we have helped thousands of companies to inspect what they expect in this manner, and provided data that has been used to strengthen their brand, and grow their business.

We understand that every business is unique. Our team of experts have decades of experience which can be brought to the table to provide your business with better insight into how it can improve and grow.



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