Customer Experience Undercover: What Is Mystery Shopping?

The following is a Best of 360Connext post.

Who needs mystery shoppers?

You do. If you sell anything to anyone, you would do yourself a world of good by enlisting mystery shoppers (sometimes called secret shoppers) into your customer insights mix. But I have a specific beef with the standard way mystery shopping works.

But, first, let’s talk about what it is v. what it should be.

Mystery Shopping

What is mystery shopping?

According to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA):

“Mystery shopping is a process in which pre-recruited and qualified consumers measure the extent to which a customer’s interactions with a business mirror the experiences the business intends.”

Sounds good. Typically, it is. Retailers, financial services organizations and healthcare practices have all enlisted mystery shoppers to help improve their customers’ experiences. These shoppers range from young adults to retired senior citizens. Some “shop” once a month as a side job, and others might shop almost every day. There is typically a fee paid to the shopper for this service – it’s normally transactionally based. The shopper gets paid for turning in the appropriate forms with the information collected from a shopping trip. For example, the form might have objective questions, like “Were you greeted upon arriving?” and some more subjective issues, like “how friendly was the staff?”

It’s not a bad way to find out if the in-store experience is living up to the expectations of the business.

What does mystery shopping tell you?

Using the objective feedback of yes/no to those straight-forward questions, real data can paint a compelling story. If the store manager expects the customers to be greeted every time they enter, the data of mystery shoppers who were only greeted 20% of the time shows that this expectation is not being fulfilled in the right way. It’s an easy and quick fix to improve the customer experience.

Mystery shoppers can also tell you in a more general sense what sort of larger issues might be lurking. If 100% of your mystery shoppers report that the display is unorganized, you know what to attack first.

What does mystery shopping NOT tell you?

The thing about mystery shopping which is hard to overcome is the same issue I have with certain usability testing methods and focus groups. It’s great to get some feedback, but it won’t give you the real feedback all of the time. Humans act differently when we are given incentives. (Tweet this!)

mystery shopping
Is your customer experience examined in a vacuum?


By asking someone to track a specific process as they shop, you are impacting their behavior. Some feedback, like the examples I mentioned, will be absolutely valuable and immediately actionable. But the nuance of how we, as busy people who are just living our daily lives, interact with brands and products and services in the midst of having a rotten day, will be somewhat lost when the experience is examined in a vacuum. The nuance of how the cashier handles the busy woman with kids or the overly talkative lonely guy could be very different than when it’s a Mary Mystery Shopper following a linear process.

It’s also much harder to gather this type of feedback when it is a business-to-business organization. Mystery shopping a complex sales process is pretty challenging due to the high-level qualifications often required.

How should you gather this feedback?

Mystery shopping really can serve about anybody wanting to improve their customer experience. Any way you can gather insights into your customers needs and the real way they are treated is a good thing. But mystery shopping in its traditional, in-store form doesn’t go far enough. Our version of mystery shopping at 360Connext is really an attempt at understanding as much of the customer journey as we can.

mystery shopping

Customer Experience Investigation™ is really about this idea of understanding the actual experience from the customer’s perspective. But your customer might be different than our team, so we use personas to guide us and try to find examples of these customers “in the wild” as much as we can. There’s a heavy observation focus on understanding customers, along with walking in the customer’s shoes as much as we’re able.

And it’s not just about shopping.

Shopping implies really only caring about the consideration and acquisition phases of the customer journey, and of course that’s only the beginning of the real relationship. Understanding what happens once customers become customers is really where insights can become insightful about loyalty and retention.

Have you observed your customers in key moments?

There are too many “moments of truth” to list in most customer experiences. Do you know what they are? Mystery shopping through the entire customer journey can give you some insights into what they are and which ones need attention. But it’s very, very, very difficult to mystery shop your own organization. If you are inside the organization, you will inevitably see the organizational dependencies differently than a customer would. But if you’re ready to consider examining your customer experience via outside mystery “shoppers,” get ready to consider both quick fixes and long-term solutions. There are often long lists of both to address.

 Image credits: BAMCorpJD Hancock and  W10002 via Creative Commons

Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the Chief Customer Experience Investigator™ and founder of 360Connext, a global consulting firm specializing in the cornerstones of customer experience: customer engagement, employee engagement and connections like social media. 360Connext serves mid-market companies and larger by helping them evaluate their true customer experience. The evaluations always lead to improvements which then lead to results like increased online conversions or loyalty.

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  1. Jeff_Hall says

    In our work over 24 years as a provider of mystery shopping research
    and insights, we often hear from clients how mystery shopping is
    utilized as a leading indicator of customer-facing issues, that if not addressed, can translate into diminished customer satisfaction, loyalty and business performance — issues that will eventually surface within customer feedback survey data. 

    Mystery shopping has undergone a tremendous evolution in recent years.  What was once a checklist tool for evaluating location-level adherence to operations-driven standards (cleanliness, speed of service, product availability, etc.), has matured into a viable strategic resource for understanding not only what your locations are doing well, but what is most important to your customers, and then focusing on a prioritized set of behaviors that will result in the most positive impact.  This requires working with a solution provider who can deliver a deeper set of analtyics, insights and role-specific reporting in order to propel positive and timely improvements.
    A critical component to program success on the client side is for the company/brand to view mystery shopping as a core indicator of business performance, and for there to exist a genuine desire to move from customer experience parity to excellence. 

    Jeff Hall
    founder and president
    Second To None, Inc.

  2. MAtlas says

    Nice article Jeannie,
    I agree with what’s been said, especially the point about actual feedback versus stimulated feedback. But I don’t think a mystery shopper’s feedback can ever be completely identical to the feedback given when a person is just going through their ordinary routines. 
    I remember Mystery Shopping for this one company called SQM ( in case anyone’s interested) and while I tried to be as honest as possible with my feedback, I could not help but carry on with the process with a mindset of “ok this is just an assignment and I’m getting free stuff”. Perhaps they could find a way to circumvent this problem in the future.

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