The Many Uses of Mystery Shopping

Mystery shopping – getting a customer’s eye view of your business – is widely recognized as a valuable marketing and customer service tool. What is often not recognized is the many ways a mystery shopping program can be utilized. Here are some ideas to consider.


If you get advance notice of impending competition, you are wise if you do all you can to be ready for it. This includes knowing the current state of your employees’ customer service skills.

A long-time client of our firm is a mid-sized department store with seven locations in two states. When it was learned that two national chains were locating in or near the same mall as its flagship store, the client ordered an intensive two-month mystery shopping program designed to do two things. The first was to take a “snapshot” of how employees were treating customers on a day-to-day basis. Our client wanted to know if customers were routinely being greeted, helped and thanked by every employee who had any customer contact. We, therefore, targeted the employees on the sales floor and at the cashier lines.

In addition, our client was interested in learning if the stress level of the December holiday season was being communicated by employees to the customers – something he did NOT want to happen! This obviously called for some subjective judgment on the part of the mystery shoppers, but we directed the shoppers to support their opinion in the narrative section of their report. This “snapshot” evaluation was designed to identify strengths and weaknesses which could be addressed either by management or further training.


Keeping an eye on the current competition is another valuable use of mystery shopping. Many of our clients evaluate not only their own locations but those of their closest competitors. Using the same evaluation form and the same shopper at each establishment, the client learns how the competition is doing, judged by the client’s own criteria. This method has been used quite successfully by several of our banking clients, as well as supermarkets and clothing retailers.


Recognition programs are an excellent use of mystery shopping programs. “Catching the employee doing something right” is a positive reinforcement of your company training program and builds employee loyalty and morale.

To institute an effective employee recognition program, you must first decide what it is you want to recognize. Is it the basic service amenities (such as a warm greeting or a thank you to every customer) or are you trying to promote a new product/service and want to make sure it is being mentioned to customers? Perhaps you just want to keep employees “on their toes” with the thought that ANY shopper MIGHT be a mystery shopper. If the employee who gets the best report from the mystery shopper is recognized in some way, those goals will be met. Recognition can take the form of cash, gift certificates, a plaque or trophy, mention in the company newsletter, a preferred parking space, or anything else that seems appropriate.

Closely tied to recognition programs are incentive programs. Customer service evaluations are often a part of the formula that determines an employee’s bonus. Sometimes they are part of contests in which individual stores or regions compete to determine who can achieve the best scores for customer service.

We are often asked how big a role mystery shopping reports should play in individual performance reviews. It is our feeling that while they can certainly be taken into account and are sometimes helpful in documenting a pattern of behavior, they should never be used as the sole basis of a performance review.


The most common use of mystery shopping is to measure training. Such measurement can be done to evaluate the existing level of customer service prior to implementing a training program, to develop a training program, to evaluate recently completed training, or all three.

By evaluating the existing level of customer service prior to beginning a training program, a benchmark is established. The trainer can then more accurately assess what areas need to be addressed, as well as what is currently succeeding and should be reinforced.

Training programs can be implemented either company-wide or as a test in a targeted location or region. In either case, the most successful training programs are those that have clearly defined goals and seek measurable results. They should take into account company standards, previous training, and the employees who will be participating.

Evaluating customer service after training is also very valuable. By doing so, the effectiveness of the training program can be measured, using a custom designed evaluation form developed to highlight the areas in which training took place. Mystery shopping scheduled for shortly after the conclusion of a formal training program will highlight areas of success and continuing weakness. Trainers can determine what techniques and teaching methods worked well in getting the message across to employees, and which didn’t. Follow-up training can then be designed. Over a period of several months, or longer, continued improvement in specific areas can be documented, as can areas of persistent weakness.

A well thought out, properly managed mystery shopping program provides valuable feedback about the effectiveness of a company’s employee selection and training. The knowledge that the next customer might be a mystery shopper can heighten service awareness and thereby upgrade performance. In addition, establishing and monitoring standards is almost always well received by employees if it is presented in a positive manner. This is because such directives tend to eliminate confusion on the part of employees and increase motivation.

Ongoing training and assessment is vital to achieving the type of high-level customer service that commands customer loyalty – and repeat business. Mystery shopping is one of the best ways to determine the customer service your employees are giving – and what they’re capable of once the proper training is provided.

by Karen Gomes Moore
(former Account Representative for Customer Perspectives)