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Why you should mystery shop your own business

Among the many ‘data gathering’ approaches that I learned as a strategy consultant, I always found mystery shopping to be one of the most powerful ways of both understanding the proposition of a business and highlighting an issue with a customer journey or competitive challenge.

Ask yourself – when was the last time you mystery shopped your own business, or one you are invested in?

If I look at the photo library on my phone from my time at CarTrawler, it is full of screenshots of the Google search results, our booking funnel and emails. Some of my best moments as a strategy consultant were from mystery shopping exercises, including:

  • Countless golf buggy rides around caravan holiday parks in 2009-2010 were a key part of understanding how the propositions of different operators compared – claiming to be interested in purchasing a caravan for my retired mother;

  • Getting thrown out of Chiswick Sainsburys in my first year at PwC for taking photos of the merchandising of the nappy aisle;

  • Visiting 15 pubs in the Channel Islands in one day (which turned out to be a Champions League day making the last few visits particularly tricky);

  • Getting questioned by security at a garden centre – admittedly I can appreciate that it was a bit weird that three 20-something men were walking round taking pictures on a weekday afternoon; and

  • Spending two weeks visiting men’s formalwear shops in Lagos, Nigeria while working with a British brand.

Mystery shopping

Figure 1 - some of my many mystery shopping experiences as a consultant

Why is mystery shopping so effective?

Businesses tend to work in vertical silos across the journey, whereas customers move through ‘horizontally’. When one aspect of the journey is designed or updated; there is no guarantee that it will fit with the whole. Some teams responsible for part of the customer journey may be incredibly customer-aware, others may be more concerned about improving their own team’s operational efficiency. It is just plain difficult to really put yourself in your prospect or customer’s shoes without going through the same journey as they do. Mystery shopping is a great way of doing this.

I’ve worked with a law firm who prided themselves on incredible client service, but were seeing disappointing Net Promoter scores (NPS) . When they dug into the feedback, they found that their accounts team were issuing often incorrect invoices and following up aggressively with clients, eroding the goodwill that the firm has built. This part of the customer journey was effectively ‘hidden’ from the lawyers and senior management.

How to mystery shop your own business

Think of this like role play – imagine the situation of a typical customer for your business and try to replicate it. This is the time for some method acting, so be prepared to go full Day-Lewis to best match the real customer experience.

When they might decide to start looking for the product/service you offer, and how might they try to find a provider like you? Are they searching online, talking to a trusted advisor, looking at reviews or asking their network? You could even get as specific as when in the day/week they are doing it, and on which device, and from where.

Then consider what a customer’s needs and expectations are. Do they want a fast, low friction purchase journey? Or will most of them need advice and the opportunity to ask questions? Is this a purchase that they will be making at a time of personal/corporate distress, or as an indulgence? Will they be comparing you against a handful of close competitors or only be considering your product/service?

Once you are ‘in character’ you can start the mystery shopping process. You might want to have a pseudonym and non-identifiable email address ready, if your colleagues would recognise your name on a list of prospects! Or you could ask a family member or close friend to do it for you – their feedback may be brutal but it isn’t tempered by having been told by your CTO just how hard it would be to change those landing pages or create an online demo.

The exact nature of your mystery shop will vary based on the product/service offered by your business – you might be sat behind your desk, out on the high street or on the phone (or all the above).

There are a few items on my standard mystery shopping checklist which might help you:

  1. At each stage, capture what you experienced, whether this met your expectations, and how you felt. Take notes, photos, screenshots, make a few videos, and time things (e.g. how long to respond to your enquiry)

  2. How well does your messaging (across all touchpoints) describe what a customer is looking for or the problem they have?

  3. How clear and compelling are the calls to action – did you feel like it was obvious what you should do next?

  4. Go through any online process that your business operates – e.g. a full purchase journey, content downloads, or 'contact us' form submissions.

  5. Where are the points of friction? How many steps do you have to go through? What jars with you, for example input validation warnings before you’ve even started typing! At what point(s) did you want to give up?

  6. If in your typical customer journey, they might go and look for online reviews or discount codes – make sure to do that as well.

  7. Try each mode of contact – contact form, webchat, phone numbers, messaging. Assess the speed of response and the nature of it. Ask a realistic but detailed question and see what kind of response you get.

  8. Ask for a demo or call with keenness – and see how quickly it is set up. Could you hypothetically have been speaking to a competitor in that time?

  9. If your journey involves engaging with a salesperson and it is possible for you to do this – what did you make of their materials, clarity of communication, understanding of your needs as an (imaginary) customer, and how is price communicated?

  10. What supporting comms do you get e.g. emails, content being shared. This is one of those times when you should always subscribe to the mailing list.

  11. If your business sells B2B, you could try and present as a poorly fitting customer (e.g. too big or too small) – do your sales team say no?

What to do with your mystery shopping findings

To summarise your findings, I’d suggest coming up with some relevant criteria and scoring your experience out of five on each. Create a highlight and lowlights list. Try to specifically call out the points at which you might have walked away. This might be more impactful if you are able to make a comparison to a couple of competitors who you’ve also mystery shopped, in particular if that would be the typical customer journey.

Then to share with your team, consider the feedback you have for your teams on both (a) having the right process/journey and (b) following the process that’s in place. Understand that aspects of your experience might be exceptional/unusual so don’t instantly extrapolate - mystery shopping isn't the only valid way of understanding the effectiveness of the customer journey and will always be somewhat subjective. But ask the question of how common such an experience might be and seek data to support this.

If you are a senior leader, be wary of how your view may be treated. Your team will no doubt know many (but probably not all) of the issues & opportunities that you identify, so communicate your findings accordingly. You also don’t want them to place too much weight on your input vs other research & data gathering activities - don’t be a HiPPO (the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

And a last piece of advice – don’t use your real address or phone number. My mum still receives brochures from those caravan parks 15 years on and has never forgiven me!

If you’d like to discuss how you can better understand and improve your customer journey, please Contact Us.

All views expressed in this post are the author's own and should not be relied upon for any reason. Clearly.



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