What is the opposite of a Mystery Shopper?

The Mystery Shopper job I always wanted.

Do public complaints make a difference? I’m always intrigued when people take to Twitter or other social media platforms to complain about a product or service. Firstly I’m wondering, does this actually make a difference? Do things improve? Secondly, if that person is a ‘Big-Wig’ in an organisation, I’m led to thinking… ‘I wonder if they’ve ever actually tried using the services they are responsible for…?’

A couple of things have triggered my interest. One involved a friend who was having a poor recruitment experience. Following a series of errors and ‘computer says no’, they ended up blurting out… “THEY SHOULD GET THE HR DEPARTMENT TO TRY APPLYING FOR ONE OF THESE JOBS… THAT WOULD WAKE THEM UP”. I like the suggestion, unfortunately I’m not sure it would make much difference.

The second thing was the opposite of Mystery Shoppers. Not so long ago I wrote ‘Measuring the Muttering’ … Detecting ‘Weak Signals’. The basic idea was that people were providing feedback on services and products, via social media, for free. It might be ‘muttering’, barely audible complaints and grumbles, but it was something worth listening to.

Unfortunately social media has amplified the ‘barely audible’ into what feels like yelling and ‘shouty rants’. Train travel brings out the worst in some people and last week I observed a few serial offenders:

  • Irritated of Radyr. “Why is the train from Pontypridd delayed, again! I missed my connection…”
  • Desperate of Cwmbran. “No buffet service between Abergavenny and Chester. I’m gagging for a cup of tea…”
  • Entitled of Llandaff. “Your conductor failed to bow deeply enough whilst perusing my billet…”

Every Chief Executive should ‘Mystery Shop’ their Services. These prompts took me back to 2013. Specifically the post I wrote; Every CEO should try to access the services their organisation delivers using a mobile phone, at least twice a month. I used to be quite the enthusiast for Mystery Shopping. This post; 3 Mystery Shopper Tasks for; Executives, Non Executives, Directors and Chiefs even goes as far as suggesting the things that the Big-Wigs should have a go at:

  1. Apply for a job online
  2. Make a telephone enquiry
  3. Complete your expenses online (by yourself)

Now I think about it, back then I was driven by a belief that people high up in an organisation ‘need’ to experience the reality and ‘feel the pain’ of being a Member of Staff, or Service User / Customer. Once that happens they will take action to make things better. At the time of writing those posts, getting the CEO and Board Members to do some Mystery Shopping felt like the perfect (simple) solution. I’m not so sure any more.

Mystery Shopping has interesting roots. Some of my change of perspective comes from the fact that Mystery Shopping has its roots in the activity of ‘catching’ people doing bad things. This article, ‘The History of Mystery Shopping: A Timeline’ places its origins in the 1940’s. Apparently it stared out as a covert operation (using private investigators) to check on the integrity of staff involved in cash handling activities in banking and retail. From there it grew into the customer service and marketing activities we are more familiar with today. However, for me, those roots in a covert activity, to secretly check that people are doing the ‘right thing’ (and punish the guilty) casts a long shadow….

If you have to rely upon an external agent to secretly check on people, it does raise questions for me. If it’s done badly, it can do a lot of damage to trust.

The second area where I’ve changed my view is around the proliferation of social media. People are literally screaming what they think about services and products nowadays. Some of it good and helpful, lots of it bad. Why do you need ‘Mystery Shoppers’ when there is a vast army of whatever the opposite of Mystery Shopper is… doing the job for free? Perhaps we should get better at how we ‘listen’ to and understanding what these people are saying?

My third shift in perspective around Mystery Shoppers is in relation to the role of Big-Wigs, Bosses and CEO’s in this space. I’ve become a bit more skeptical of the impact a CEO can have by doing the occasional bit of Mystery Shopping. If it’s driven by something like applying for a job, getting frustrated and having a tantrum with the HR department, it’s probably a waste of time. Things have gone too far in the wrong direction for a bit of Mystery Shopping to fix things, in my view.

However, if the involvement of the Big-Wig is as part of a regular, transparent, walk through of services, with the approach of “what can we learn and improve together” I’m more inclined to think there’s a chance of lasting improvement. Think of it more like ‘continuous improvement’ than unannounced, intermittent, quality assurance inspection checks…

I don’t know the answer to this but – do Toyota have the equivalent of Mystery Shoppers? I’d be interested to know.* (I’ve got an answer Genchi Genbutsu via Complex Wales, see explanation below from Nigel Thurlow, who’s written books about this sort of thing)

Helpful as ever… So no definitive answer on Mystery Shoppers from me. There is a place for them I’m sure. In the right context and used for a specific purpose. But not as a universal approach, and if the Big Boss has a flash of inspiration and fancies a go, proceed with extreme caution.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Mystery Shopping has it’s roots in covert operations, carried out in secret, to catch people doing bad things. It’s worth remembering that.
  2. With social media we have the ‘opposite’ of Mystery Shoppers. People telling us constantly what they think of products and services. We need to get better at ‘listening’ and understanding what they are saying.
  3. If a Big-Wig is about to embark on some Mystery Shopping – encourage them to think about the Why? How? and What? they are going to to do afterwards. It might be better to drop the ‘mystery’.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

2 Responses

  1. I got to agree with your change of heart, not forgetting that there’s a load of undercover boss reality shows on TV again. I reckon they vet the bosses quite strictly beforehand, to make sure it’s all done with the right motivation, not catching people at it, so to speak.

    However, I have helped with one case of mystery shopping that got all out of hand. I was merely a sounding board for an executive who went to work secretly, as a secretly in the executive suite. The local exec team had no idea she’d been asked to be a Non Executive Director on the Board and she had time on her hands before the new post was to be announced. The behaviour she witnessed when nobody knew her true rank and background, was described as “utterly horrifying”. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at her first formal introduction meeting, apparently it was like the gunfight at the OK corral.

    She had no intention of secretly looking for unscrupulous people and we laughed about the idea to begin with, calling herself Secret Squirrel over a couple of bottles of wine. But she went and did it and two directors resigned during the gunfight.

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