When an effective mystery shopping program is in place, it becomes easier for companies to scale and develop a competitive edge. While these programs are commonly used, there remains a large gap between those companies who consistently delight their customers and those who rarely do. The reason is simple. Just because mystery shopping is commonly utilized, it doesn’t mean companies are all using it the right way.

Over the years, I have seen almost every type of mystery shopping program design possible, from the good, the bad, and the ugly. And without the proper guidance, they can be challenging to design and they certainly aren’t easy to manage with measurable results. But let’s face it, nothing worth having in life comes easy.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. When designed properly with a strategic approach, a mystery shopping program can produce measurable, profitable results and can allow companies to strengthen their competitive edge.

Let’s take a look at 4 factors that should go into any program design:

1. Look Beyond the C-Suite.

Part of the reason mystery shopping programs have poor design is because front-line employees aren’t really considered when the program is developed. There is a often a disconnect between what is expected from the top and what is happening day to day. The program developers don’t always see things from the street, where the field meets the customer, and where sales are won or customers are lost. After all, the front line employees are the ones that have to execute on what is getting measured during the mystery shop evaluation. Many times they don’t understand the ‘what’ with regard to measurement and they certainly don’t know the ‘why’.

2. Keep it simple, and keep it focused.

Most of the surveys we see are too long, they ask too many questions. You can’t train to 50-75 things at once. And remember, the most successful mystery shopping programs are designed with training and continuous improvement in mind.

In keeping it focused, think about what the outcome is meant to drive. Far too often we see too many audit questions instead of true customer experience behavior questions. Many times they are not truly focused on the customer experience, and a mystery shop should be. If you want an audit, do an audit. You can ask audit questions, but they should be no more than 20-25% of the survey. Otherwise, we are confusing the message to the field about what really matters with this resource.

Finally, make sure what you are measuring aligns with what is most important. For example, do you know what your top five behaviors are that drive customer experience and retention off the top of your head? If not, then it’s a good idea to identify these sooner rather than later. If these are not the main focus of whatever measurement tool you use, they should be. Your team should execute at a very high level on these top 5. Every time, with every customer or guest.

3. Taking Action with the Data.

Mystery shopping is not only the provision of data. If simply reviewing data or scores made us better, many of us would be star athletes or wall street tycoons. What mystery shopping does is provide an on-the-ground assessment of the application of key behaviors by our front line associates. In essence, it gives us a “report card” of areas where our team is strong, as well as areas where we have opportunity for improvement.

However, these assessments alone are not enough. Once you receive the evaluations, the magic really begins. Using the feedback from mystery shoppers, you now have a roadmap of what key behaviors should be discussed with your frontline associates. Individual shops should not be viewed as an end-all, be-all of a location’s quality or performance. Rather, they are stimuli for regular conversations about your steps of sales and service.

When we think about it, steps of sales and service are not natural human behaviors; they are learned behaviors. A comparable behavior is looking both ways before we cross the street. At this point in our lives, we are all experts at crossing the street. However, that wasn’t always the case. If we think back, we can all remember standing at the curb with an adult figure as they held our hand and said, “Look both ways. Are there any cars coming? No? Then it’s safe to cross.” This simple practice was repeated every time we were to cross the street, until we reached proficiency with the behavior. Now, it is just reflex for us to look both ways when we approach the curb to cross the street.

Thinking about this in the context of sales and service behaviors, an individual’s sales and service aptitude comes from two places: their previous life experience and their previous work experience. Typically, frontline associates have had neither the life experience nor the work experience to incorporate our service expectations into their daily behaviors. Because of this, it is necessary to evaluate what specific behaviors are our teams’ strengths and what behaviors have an opportunity for improvement and require that regular conversation to commit to reflex.

Whether you are currently using a mystery shopping program or if you are searching for one, you should be asking yourself these questions:

  • How will my managers use this data once they receive it?
  • How will I track the progress of our program over time?
  • How will I measure success of the program?

4. Add some reality

Are your measurements based on reality? Are you using video or audio technology so you really know what’s going on? It’s 2015, let’s get authentic, transparent, let’s get real! The use of audio/video is a great tool that is widely available and can create incredible training sessions. There are many ways to utilize these tools as an add-on for your program to view top performers, or performers with the most opportunity so that you can take action quickly. Remember, 90% of people are visually dominant, and this type of learning can accelerate recall and generate quick results.

Once you are able to clearly articulate the answers to the above, then it’s a safe bet that you have an outstanding program with a measurable and substantial ROI. On the other hand, if these questions are unable to be answered, then it’s time to re-evaluate your program and consider alternative options. After all, it’s likely that you are leaving money on the table and losing customers to competition that can and will answer these questions.

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