December 1, 2003

7 Min Read
Not Your Fathers Mystery-Shopping Services


Web-based reporting. Digitally recorded phone calls. Digital photos. Online reports burned onto CDs. Palm Pilots and laptop computers. Certified professionals. Same-day report turnaround. Instantaneous summary updates for true, real-time reporting. These are just some of the latest advances in the valuable business tool known as mystery-shopping services.

Here is a summary of mystery-shopping for those who may be unfamiliar with the concept: A mystery-shopping company works with your business, learning about a typical customer or typical prospect scenario, which will ultimately be developed into a mystery-shopping program. The shoppers are then screened and coached on following these scenarios to call or visit your properties and evaluate your employees performance. Most companies attach rewards and incentives to these programs to reward employees for outstanding accomplishments. What happens during these moments of truth can be the difference between success and failure for your business.

In the last few years, advances in mystery-shopping services have been truly astounding. The difference between todays services and those of the recent past is like that between e-mail and smoke signals. Some of you may recall the old days (actually just a few years ago) when paper-based reports were sent via the mail or faxed, sometimes more than two weeks after the onsite visit. Cassette recordings of mystery-shopper phone calls (if any recording was even made) arrived two to three weeks after the call was placed. Some of you are probably still using companies that do this.

Todays leaders in the field of mystery shopping have made substantial investments in technology as well as highly skilled people trained in its use. This has not only improved the speed of reporting turnaround, but has added verification capabilities and tremendous value for clients. These advancements keep the cost of mystery shopping relatively steady, while the costs for other business-support services have risen, in some cases dramatically. And no other service can tell you exactly what happens to a prospect or current customer when he calls or visits one of your properties.

Digital Recordings

One of the coolest, newest developments for self-storage operators in the realm of mystery shopping is digital recordings of calls made to locations by mystery-shoppers, as well as digital photos of properties taken during in-person visits. The days of relying on latearriving paper reports and/or cassette tapes are overyesterdays news.

While some companies have been making recordings and supplying such tapes to their clients, there are usually delays in the time between the call and receipt of the tapeup to two weeks, if not more. If they send them quicker, overnight-mail charges are usually applied. By then, more than 100 other prospective customers have phoned your location. How many were actually converted to customers? How many could have been handled better and signed with your competition instead?

Todays leading mystery-shopping companies record calls digitally, adding links to a web-based call report for their clients, who can actually listen to the recording while viewing the report! The best part is the reports are usually sent the same day the calls were made. If an employee is caught taking great care of and appropriately handling a caller, he can be instantly rewarded to encourage and reinforce the positive behavior. If he did not handle the call appropriately, youve got an immediate opportunity to review it with him, and retrain him how to perform better and be successful in your organization. It is valuable to do so before he handles any more callers in the same unwanted manner.

With the advent of digitally-recorded calls comes another major benefit of equal or even greater importance to speedy turnaround: Recordings of the calls give you the ability to hear the tone and emotion in your employees voice in addition to exactly what was said. This can be turned into a tremendous training tool for present and future employees. It also gives you the opportunity to verify the mystery-shoppers are doing their jobs correctly.

Clients are encouraged to share the reports and recordings with their employees so they can hear themselves in a real situation. Its like having a mirror next to your phone: Watch yourself on a call, and its impossible not to see the emotion youre exhibiting. The calls can even be burned onto CDs to give the employer/employee a clear record to use in future training sessions. (Note: Each state has its own laws regarding recording of employee calls. Your mystery-shopping company can provide you details to ensure your compliance with them).

Digital Photos

A picture really is worth a thousand words. Or, in a competitive business like yours, it could be worth a thousand dollars! Digital photos are invaluable tools to selfstorage operators and can be used to evaluate the condition of a property at the moment of a surprise visit, verify that units reported vacant really are, and record any other items for which visual verification is beneficial.

As with digital recordings, digital photos can be linked directly to a site-visitation report so clients can view the report and the photos simultaneously. As with call recordings, this technology results in fast turnaround of reports, usually within 24 to 48 hours of the visit. Digital photos are used to assess many factors at self-storage facilities, including:

  • Office condition

  • Signage

  • Property maintenance

  • Landscaping

  • Vacancy verifications

  • Safety and hazards

  • Insurance verifications

Youve Got Mail

The biggest advance in mystery shopping has come with the many options presented by the Internet. In the not-too-distant past, providers would mail out assignments to their shoppers, who would hand-write their reports and mail or fax them back. The reports would be given a quick scan by a proofreader, sometimes hand-corrected, and forwarded to the clientagain, usually via mail or fax. A span of three to four weeks between shop and report was not uncommon.

Some providers eventually developed databases into which the reports were entered by a data-entry team. At the end of the month, if any roll-up/summary reporting was provided at all, it may have been cut and pasted.

Today, web-based reports, ready for the client to view the same day of the visit or within about 48 hours, are the norm. They can be sent automatically via e-mail, and the client can log on to a secured website to view summary or roll-up reports. Roll-up reports are integrated, updated in real time each time an individual shop report is approved. Viewers can compare locations, regions, etc., to each other and over the history of a mystery- shopping program. Reports can be sent simultaneously to multiple people, such as the owner, regional managers and each site manager.

Shopper Certification Takes Off

Earlier this year, to help improve overall skills and assist members in improving the quality of reporting, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) began offering a certification process for interested mystery-shoppers. There are currently two certifications available: Silver and Gold.

Silver certification requires a shopper to take an online test aimed at assessing his general knowledge about what it takes to be a good mystery-shopper. If he passes, he is given instant feedback and awarded Silver certification.

Gold certification is open only to shoppers with Silver certification, and requires them to attend a one-day seminar. Led by a former mystery-shopper, professional author and trainer, these seminars cover many of the issues shoppers are required to know and comply with in the course of their duties.

As of September 2003, more than 4,000 shoppers were awarded Silver certification, and more than 600 were awarded Gold certification. The MSPA is offering seminars through the end of 2003 and will continue in more than 40 locations in 2004.

Todays mystery-shopping programs are sophisticated, proven business tools that, executed and used properly, provide operators a significant strategic advantage over their competition. Using the latest technologies, certified shoppers, advanced analytical tools and other professional methodologies, mystery-shopping providers have assisted their clients in dramatically improving how callers and visitors are handled, and have helped them convert more prospects to customers. In short, they have made themselves exponentially more valuable to their clients than ever before.

Ron Welty is the president of Perrysburg, Ohio based IntelliShop, a national provider of mystery- shopping and other customer-experience measurement services. For more information, call 877.894.6349; visit

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