By Nigel Shanahan, MD of Rapide

The mystery shopper is in decline but I can’t deny that it has had its heyday. 10 years ago it was a fantastic idea. Businesses had fully clocked on to the importance of customer experience and ensuring their clients were satisfied — but they didn’t know how to maintain this. In particular, big brands with multiple stores across the country wanted to make sure they had a consistent feel so that whether a customer was visiting a store in Leeds, London or Loughborough they would experience exactly the same excellent service and ambience.

However, this was all pre modern technology. It lasted a while and companies reviewed their tick box surveys and patted each other on the back if they had done well; reviewed situations if not so well. The mystery shopper got paid for doing their duty and so it continued.

Over the past few years though, mystery shopping has been on the way out. Why? Firstly, its expensive — you have to pay multiple individuals to take part in the mystery shopping which can prove very people intensive. Secondly, it’s time consuming — they’ll go back home, fill out a survey, they’ll meditate on the experience and submit something they’ve been paid to do that totally misses the real-time reaction they felt a few hours earlier.

Thirdly, employees know what to look for. Most people who have worked in the customer facing industry — whether it is retail, hospitality or even banking, will be taught how to keep an eye out for the dreaded mystery shopper. They come in all shapes and sizes but your manager will have told you to watch out for certain questions or actions that give them away. Staff know how to detect a mystery shopper these days; they’re wise to the signs and as a result they don’t give a full, true and accurate picture of what it is really like to be the shopper.

In a recent seminar, the Head of Retail at Office Depot in America told how he was frustrated with an observance that while their revenue figures were diving, their mystery shopper figures were flying ever higher. He couldn’t understand why; surely if the mystery shoppers were saying they were doing a good job — they were, right? Wrong. He took it upon himself to visit 70 stores incognito, observed and spoke to the customers direct and asked for their feedback there and then, in real-time. He found that the reason mystery shoppers were not pointing at problems was because they were measuring stock in the shop, checking the windows and toilets were clean, or that the name badges were clearly shown on a shirt — but they weren’t getting inside the heads of the customer who told him they felt the shop had lost its way.

Fourthly, it’s restrictive. Surveys just don’t give people the time and space they need to really have their say. If I have a problem I want to be able to articulate that and I may not be able to do it in the form of a tick box survey or 100 words.

Finally, technology — the rise of the mobile phone. The Guardian published a stat last year that claimed mobile phone owners in Britain look at their phone over 200 times a day. That’s roughly every five minutes of every waking hour! Businesses are starting to cotton on to this and it’s companies like Rapide that help them access their customers through their mobile phone so the very moment they have had an experience they can leave their feedback in real-time. They are much more likely to do that while the emotion is fresh in their minds and they are free to say as much as they want either via text message or over the phone.

Take West Bromwich Building Society, for example. They have a busy call centre that answers up to 1,500 calls day. Customer service has always been very important to them but they wanted to do better. They had a mystery shopper system but they felt it had grown staid and ineffective. They wanted to gather feedback and be able to respond to their genuine customers in real time and sort out any problems they may have. As a result they binned their mystery shopper programme and they now use Rant & Rave to measure their customer satisfaction. Every caller is asked if they want to be put through to a feedback system where they can evaluate on a scale of 1 to 5 how happy they are with the building society and then leave a message as to why. If any low scores come up, the team are alerted right away so that they can respond within two hours and they can listen to the problem and find the solution, effectively turning any Ranters into Ravers.

West Bromwich are just one example of a company that have chosen to replace their mystery shopper with fast feedback via the mobile phone. More and more companies are appreciating how important the mobile phone is to accessing their customers — past, present and potential. So, while the mystery shopper isn’t quite in its grave yet, thanks to the rise of SMS, the death knell isn’t far away.

About the author

Nigel Shanahan is the MD and founder of Rapide. Launched in 2000, they are one of the UK’s leading customer engagement specialists, supplying state-of-the-art proactive communication and fast feedback technology to half of the FTSE.