‘Mystery Shopping’ Won’t Work if You Can’t Look at the Big Picture
Some brands are learning the hard way that no matter how much they invest in a better customer experience (CX), a single mishap can have disastrous consequences. With customers more empowered than ever to share their feelings on social media, one negative experience can spark the outrage of thousands online. Just ask any of the 210 million viewers and counting of the infamous video of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off a plane last year.
With stakes as high as they are, no brand — be it consumer or B-to-B — can risk the fallout of a poor CX strategy. And while brand leaders continue to throw money at the problem, many are overlooking a simple but critical fact: a good customer experience can only come from a holistic, intimate understanding of what it’s actually like to be a customer.
Most everyone is familiar with surveys and ratings and reviews, but actually acting as the shopper lends human context to the data and can illuminate hidden problems eroding the customer experience. With this is in mind, more brands need to prioritize a strategy that existed long before the days of omnichannel marketing: mystery shopping.
Mystery Shopping is Powerful When Done Right
Mystery shopping is a strategy used to study the customer experience by actually interacting with a brand and evaluating it from a customer’s viewpoint. Some businesses use third-party mystery shoppers who aren’t entrenched in the company itself and who interact with a brand and report back on specific metrics. While mystery shopping has been used for decades, many businesses have used it largely as a way to monitor employee behavior. Today, brick-and-mortar retailers and companies across all verticals use mystery shopping to monitor factors ranging from how friendly employees are towards guests to how long it takes for customers to be helped.
That’s all well and good. These metrics can be useful and even actionable if gathered accurately. However, the way most mystery shopping strategies are implemented limits their effectiveness because they're too narrow in scope. They often focus on point-of-sale interactions or other factors that don’t account for even a fraction of the diverse experiences and contact points customers have with brands.
For a mystery shopping strategy to be effective, it needs to take a far more holistic approach.
Think Mystery Experiences, Not Just Mystery Shopping
An effective mystery shopping approach needs to encompass the entire range of experiences customers might have, not just at the checkout counter.
Why? Because consumers don’t have purely transactional relationships with businesses anymore. In fact, a recent Episerver survey of more than 1,000 consumers found that 92 percent visited a retail website for the first time for reasons other than to make purchases. Whether on retail websites or even financial or insurance sites, consumers aren’t just browsing to make a purchase — they’re researching products and services, looking for contact information, and even searching for inspiration.
Currently, many mystery shopping strategies are siloed ineffectively across departments. For example, a mystery shopper testing a call center might report metrics like how long he or she was put on hold or the length of the call itself, but these metrics by themselves don’t reveal much since they don’t capture the broader customer journey. And often these metrics aren't tied into the broader business, with knowledge not easily shared between departments. Even brands that are doing “journey mapping” today often rely on an approach that's far too analytic and fails to locate the data in the context of the lived customer experience. Armed only with data, retailers can’t see the forest for the trees. Stats alone can’t provide the same depth of insight that a specific customer anecdote can, for example.
Instead, brands should be asking bigger-picture questions and tying them into larger goals. For example, what problems are customers having in the first place that necessitate calls? And how difficult is it to find answers to questions or solutions to their problems? These concerns don’t just apply to the call center, but the business as a whole.
And with customers now interacting with companies across so many different touchpoints, consistency is more important than ever. We’ve all been “answer shopping” before — if that call with the cable company doesn’t go well, it’s easy to pick up and dial over to the next representative to get a different response.
But inconsistencies in processes and information are frustrating for customers. An effective mystery shopping program needs to evaluate a consistent customer experience across all channels and departments, whether shopping in-store, browsing a mobile app or contacting customer service via phone.
Technology Won’t Help if You Don’t Put the Customer First
Rapid advancements in technology enable businesses to improve their customer experience. For example, artificial intelligence can create more personalized experiences for customers, improve marketing strategies and capture useful feedback. However, even the best technology can’t help if brands don’t prioritize the customer experience at every touchpoint.
United’s recent customer service debacle is just one that illustrates a clear gap between the brand’s understanding of the customer experience and the actual experience itself. A thorough, comprehensive “mystery shopping” strategy would have helped United to anticipate the customer service problems surrounding overbooking practices early on, avoiding massive PR disasters in the process. And on a smaller scale, strategies like these can eliminate hiccups along the way that can alienate consumers with any brand.
Ultimately, the question comes down to this: Do you know what it’s like to be your customer? If you don’t, you can’t address the problems your brand is facing, or bolster its successes. Beyond siloed departments, beyond isolated insights from flashy new marketing technology, the businesses that thrive will empathize with their customers along every step of the way.
Justin Anovick is vice president of product at Episerver, a company that unifies content and commerce in one platform.
Related story: Top Performing Brands in the Eyes of a Mystery Shopper