Friend or Faux. Why Use Mystery Shoppers?


There’s a myth, or legend, or possibly a hard historical fact, that when Catherine the Great toured her ample domains a certain amount of preparation was put into the royal tour. Villages were raised to the ground to be replaced with perfect reconstructions (known as Potemkin Villages) without the signs of dilapidation and poverty. Revolting peasants were deleted as necessary, along with anybody who looked a bit sick, hungry or was basically no oil painting. The Ruritanian joviality that was presented to the empress may have been a little misleading but the result was all important. As far as the empress was concerned she ruled a peaceful, prosperous land full of beautiful (and very grateful) people.
Things have changed for royalty these days, in oh-so-many ways and at least today when a crowned head comes to town the worst that tends to happen is an extraordinary amount of buffing. The effect is not applied simply to crowned heads, either. Even the grumpiest CEO often finds few faults when indulging in a state visit to their business premises; the service is impeccable and the store is sparkling. Your business empire is full of beautiful, grateful and terribly helpful people.

The Fifth Column

Enter the mystery shopper; like field marketing agents something of a group of fifth columnists. As the bunting is torn down, the cheery grins are peeled off and thrown into over-flowing rubbish bins and the dropped chirpy “can I help you today, sir/madam?” is changed to the more familiar “Wha’ d’ya want?” mystery shopping can provide you an impartial and secretive set of eyes and ears on the ground which can be invaluable.

Mystery shoppers have been employed for decades to find out what goes on behind closed doors, when it comes to customer service, in order to ensure those doors don’t close for good. Today, in a highly competitive world, where internet sales snap at the heels of all High Street stores, this insight is more invaluable than ever. There is, after all, very little reason to shop in a real store these days, it’s more for the experience. When the experience is a bad one, it can be fatal.

Advantages of Mystery Shoppers over “Real” Customers

In recent years there’s been a debate as to just how much use and how much of an investment a Mystery Shopper really is. Surely the best people to give their opinion is a real customer? The question is do faux customers really have any value at all; you have to pay them and unlike the real customer, their opinion is based on a “fabricated” experience. This is where the need for both opinions comes in, use a mystery shopper while also receiving customer feedback.

Pop up Surveys

One perception that has some value to it is that not only do real customers offer real opinions but they appreciate being asked. This is true; to an extent. In fact, not everyone does appreciate being interrupted and questioned. Think of the last time an internet pop-up interrupted your browsing; did you click on the X to close it, click on the back button and go browse elsewhere or did you spend a happy “few minutes” answering the endless list of questions? Hmm. In the real world the boundless enthusiasm of your customers to be interrogated may not be that different from your own. Unless they’ve had a really, really bad experience. The problem is that the chances are that the “representative sample” of customer’s can be representative of the bad or poor experiences only.

I’ll Give you my Opinion

Another downside to the real customer is that they may be only too happy to give you a piece of their mind. If you pick the wrong customer, one without volume control, you risk some pop-up negative advertising (for free) that you really would rather have done without! Mystery shoppers are discreet and if Maureen on the Food Counter picks her nose disinterestedly while filling the shopper’s baguette then they’re unlikely to start ranting at her in front of your real customers. While Maureen’s career may suddenly be more finite, your sales won’t suffer the same fate.

Lonely Hearts

In other cases, while some may be irritated by the interruption others may be glad of the company. They have opinions and aren’t afraid to share them, at length. This can make it very difficult to quantify the time it can take to get through the survey, making costs, at best unpredictable. Mystery shoppers have key areas to target and will complete their tasks on a time-scale that is quantifiable.

Balanced Views

On balance, while real customer experiences are invaluable in many ways, the professional, targeted and discreet approach that mystery shopping offers is more likely to offer a broader insight into the operation of your firm, the performance of your staff and to identify tangible and real areas to target in your company for training and improvement. It can even highlight where things are going right!


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