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Secrets of mystery shoppers: lessons in the consumer experience

What is good customer service? To find out, we turned to the president of the Mystery Shopping Professionals Association in Europe and Africa, to help us understand more about how to keep consumers happy.

By Isabella Hastings on 24/06/2019

Brand loyalty can give a company the following it needs to outperform competitors. But building that customer base isn’t easy – and maintaining it is even harder. People are complicated and shoppers notoriously fickle, so meeting the multitude of service expectations is a major undertaking.

To find out what customers are really looking for, we asked Jill Spencer, the president of Mystery Shopping Professionals Association (MSPA) in Europe and Africa, and chair of its Global Advisory Board, to outline the lessons learned from years of mystery shopping.

Fast, friendly and knowledgeable service

“It’s the same regardless of industry,” says Spencer. “We find the three most important things to customers are fast, friendly and knowledgeable service standards.”

What changes between industries, however, is the degree to which customers expect different service standards and how they manifest between companies. For example, customers at a fast food restaurant and customers at a car dealership will, unsurprisingly, look for varying degrees of fast, friendly and knowledgeable service in their experience.

According to Spencer, attaining the right level of service for your business will lay the groundwork for a strong customer base.

“The customer being confident that a member of staff has given the right advice, explained what the next steps should be and were genuinely interested will increase the likelihood of the business being recommended to friends and family, or the customer returning as an advocate for that business,” she says.

Sounds great, but how do you do it?

One bad service experience can quickly become a bad Yelp or TripAdvisor review and ultimately damage a company’s reputation. Fortunately, business owners can take steps to ensure their brand is protected.

“Small business owners should set up a customer service promise and training program to help drive every action made by employees,” says Spencer. “That way if the business owner isn’t in on any given day, then at least the staff know the basics of how to treat a customer and how to uphold the business’ service standards.”

Creating a set of company values can make a big difference. But for those business owners looking for some reassurance that staff are maintaining the brand and reputation they’ve built, mystery shoppers may be the answer.

“Mystery shopping can take place wherever there is a natural interface or interaction between staff and a customer,” says Spencer. “It can take place in any sort of environment, whether in person, over the phone, or as an email enquiry.”

The purpose of a mystery shopper isn’t to trap employees in a mistake. Instead, they help business owners address gaps in service that could make the company stronger. Even excellent service experiences can be improved upon. Creating a working environment that fosters this kind of growth will ensure your business is always moving in a positive direction.

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Customer service in the digital age

With many businesses adopting an online presence and embracing digital trends, it seems natural that customer service expectations would see some major changes too. According to Spencer, that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Interestingly, regardless of the fact that digitalisation is happening, customers still fundamentally base their likelihood to recommend or return to a store on the fast, friendly and knowledgeable elements of service,” says Spencer. “What is happening is that customers expect digitalisation to speed up service.”

That isn’t to say that business owners should turn their backs on new technology trends or abandon it altogether. Digital technology can reduce employment costs and speed up certain service experiences, but customers often want to interact with a real person, particularly when it comes to complaint handling. As a result, business owners should think long and hard about whether a shift towards digital technology will ultimately have a positive or negative impact on service quality.

“We see a lot of companies who invest heavily in artificial intelligence and are forgetting their own staff,” says Spencer. “Their staff are feeling less valued as a consequence. It’s really important to find a happy medium of supporting digitalisation and development, and making sure you’re looking after your staff and keeping them engaged.”

Going above and beyond

According to Spencer, once you’ve perfected the fast, friendly and knowledgeable service, companies should try to turn that customer experience into a positive memory – think Build-A-Bear, Disney, Lush Cosmetics.

“Delight customers,” says Spencer. “All it’s really about is making connections with people. Be clever by tweaking your service so that you can offer something different from your competitors.”