A Secret Weapon

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Secret shoppers can point out what your stores are doing well — and what they aren’t — in a way that other consumer satisfaction tools can’t

Customer satisfaction surveys, testimonials, even repeat business and sales figures tell you a lot about what your business is doing well and some about what it’s not doing well. There’s one tool that can tell you more about how shoppers experience your stores than any other — the secret shopper.

Secret shoppers, also called mystery or undercover shoppers, evaluate your store (or your e-commerce site) against a set of criteria, sometimes acting out certain scenarios to see how retail sales associates or customer service representatives respond.

Bob Phibbs, a New York-based speaker, consultant and author best known as The Retail Doctor, points to several benefits of routinely using mystery shoppers in an article on his company’s website. They include:

  • Allowing you to monitor and measure service performance
  • Strengthening customer retention
  • Highlighting for employees what is most important when helping customers
  • Monitoring your store’s physical condition
  • Ensuring quality in products and service
  • Facilitating performance comparisons between locations
  • Pointing out needs for additional training.

Emphasis on secret

If you haven’t used secret shoppers in the past, there are several things to consider before you get started.

 “The first key to secret shopping your business is that it needs to be a secret. That means no sharing with staff that a secret shopper will be coming in today,” writes Dan Breeden, a senior marketer with Verizon, in a 2017 article for Inc. And, even if you have multiple locations across more than one state, don’t be tempted to do an “Undercover Boss” and disguise yourself, he says.

Instead, you can hire secret shoppers through a number of companies that specialize in the service, hire them on your own or even enlist a trusted friend or relative to do the undercover work for you. Whichever route you choose, you’ll want to use a comprehensive, standardized grading sheet that evaluates everything from the appearance of the exterior and interior of the store to the way customers are greeted and how RSAs respond to questions. To evaluate e-commerce, secret shoppers grade websites on factors like site responsiveness, ease of comparing products and helpfulness of the chat function.

The report card

In your grading sheet, ask secret shoppers concrete questions. “How long did it take an RSA to greet you?” is better than “Did you feel welcome?” because the answer will indicate specific areas you can work on with your staff. In other words, it’s easier to tell your team they need to greet shoppers within 15 or 30 seconds of them entering the store than to encourage RSAs to “make shoppers feel welcome.”

Phibbs puts it this way: “Your shop questions need to be black and white. The employee either did or didn’t say, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good afternoon’ or ‘Good evening.’ They either described a product using features (it has) with benefits (to the customer) or they didn’t.”

At the end of every questionnaire, Phibbs likes to pose this question to the secret shopper:

“Would you be willing to drive past a competitor to return to this location based on the service you received today?”

If you’ve recently made a major change, such as enacting a new sales training program or giving your store interior a makeover, you may want to send a secret shopper in just to evaluate how well you’ve executed it.

In general, it’s best to send more than one secret shopper into your location or to have a shopper visit over a period of time, say two or three times over six months. It will give you a better sense of how your store is doing overall.

Using the information

When discussing results with your employees, emphasize that the secret shopper exercise isn’t a spy mission intended to find wrongdoing — it’s a learning exercise.

“Secret shopping should not be a ‘gotcha’ that turns into negative discussions with staff. Doing that will destroy team morale. Instead, try to distill the feedback into a few positive steps that you can take to improve your business,” Breeden says. “… Whatever it is, try to involve the team in finding solutions and you may find that secret shopping becomes a secret weapon for making your store a customer favorite.”

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