Should You Hire a Mystery Shopper for Your Business?

A secret shopper can uncover areas of improvement and help you enhance the shopping experience for your customers.
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A secret shopper can uncover areas of improvement and help you enhance the shopping experience for your customers. (Photo: BaanTaksinStudio/Shutterstock)

Understanding how customers perceive your business is critical to your success. While your staff might be on their best behavior when you’re supervising, what’s the experience like the rest of the time?

Enter mystery shoppers. These evaluators go into your business disguised as customers and report back on potential areas of improvement.

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Jennifer Hayes, co-author of “How to Become a Mystery Shopper.” (Photo: Jennifer Hayes

“As a mystery shopper, it’s amazing what I observe on these assignments. While the service is often good, I’ve also seen staff using their phones, roughhousing in the store or being rude to customers. Businesses know that it costs more to get a new customer than keep an old one, so this kind of information is of the utmost value,” said Jennifer Hayes, co-author of “How to Become a Mystery Shopper.”

Could your small business use an honest critique? Here’s what to consider when hiring a mystery shopper and tips on how to make the most of your investment in the service.

Understanding mystery shopping

Think mystery shoppers are just for big-box stores with massive budgets? Think again — they measure performance at all kinds of businesses, large and small.

“I’ve seen small mom-and-pop stores, hotels, restaurants, cruise ships and even churches use mystery shoppers. It’s a service that’s good for business owners who want to see their service from their customers’ point of view,” said Hayes.

So how do you find a mystery shopper? Generally speaking, most businesses opt to work with a mystery shopping company that uses independent contractors to evaluate the store.

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(Photo: Smarty Pants Finance)

“The companies send the mystery shoppers into the store with a list of things the owner wants them to look for, such as how long customers wait in line, whether or not they’re greeted and if the store is clean,” she said.

After the experience, the mystery shopper fills out a detailed questionnaire that gets compiled into a final report for your business. The details in the assessment can help you zero in on where to make improvements.

Evaluate mystery shopping companies

Do a quick online search for mystery shopping companies and you’ll find there are thousands of options. How do you find a company that will give you a detailed critique at a price you can afford?

Start by looking for an endorsement from the Mystery Shopping Professionals Association (MSPA), said Hayes.

“That organization is like the Better Business Bureau of mystery shopping. There are lots of scams out there, and the MSPA helps both shoppers and businesses know they’re signing up with a legitimate company,” she said.

Then, start looking at various companies’ services and specialties. Some focus on very specific types of businesses (such as casinos in Nevada), while others serve a broader range of industries and locations.

“Each mystery shopping company has its own personality. Call up a few to see which ones fit your business needs,” said Hayes.

Pricing for mystery shopping is highly variable, depending on the frequency of your assessments and how much data you wish to gather. It’s worth getting a few quotes on packages and negotiating for the best price.

Related: 5 Negotiating Tactics Every Small Business Owner Should Practice

Choose target areas

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Mystery shoppers will be able to tell you how your staff is treating your customers. (Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Mystery shoppers can evaluate just about anything about your business. Narrowing the focus to a couple of specific areas can help give you the information you need to know, said Hayes.

“There are going to be things you care more about. If you have target areas, include those in the mystery shopping assignment so you can get the best results for your money,” she said.

Here are some potential things you can ask the mystery shopper to pay attention to:

  • Wait time in check-out lines
  • Friendly greeting of each customer
  • Cleanliness of the bathroom
  • Tidiness of store shelves
  • Upsell offers from staff
  • Conflict resolution with dissatisfied customers
  • Treatment of shoppers with children
  • Plating of food

Timing should also play a role in your audit. Perhaps you want to know whether your servers are slacking off during a slow weekday lunch, or if your temporary holiday staff is doing enough to move merchandise along. Those situations will affect the timing and frequency of the mystery shop.

“You can also change the area of focus next time the mystery shopper goes in. Be active in communicating with the mystery shopping company,” said Hayes.

Turn reports into results

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Look closely at the mystery shopper’s report for areas of improvement. (Photo: StunningArt/Shutterstock)

The success of working with a mystery shopper is entirely dependent on your willingness improve your business. Take a close look at the findings in the final report to see where you can make changes.

“The report shouldn’t just sit on a desk somewhere — it should turn into action,” said Hayes. “I’ve been to places where the same problem has existed multiple times, even after being mystery shopped. They’re wasting their money.”

You might decide to provide staff with additional training, revamp protocols to keep things cleaner or change your approach to customer service to address negative feedback. But don’t forget about positive remarks on the report, as well.

“Sometimes you’ll see a comment about a particularly friendly employee. That person might deserve a bonus or a promotion,” said Hayes.

Related: Could an Audit Help Boost Your Bottom Line?

Taking a hard look at your business through a mystery shopper audit can be a little scary. But when you understand how customers really see your business, you can work to perfect the experience for everyone who walks through your door.

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