Going undercover

How better to discover your product’s true customer experience than putting yourself in a customer’s shoes? Mystery shopping, correctly deployed, remains a valuable marketing tool. By Steve Hemsley.

Every year brands spend thousands of pounds acquiring valuable consumer insight, but to get a truly warts-and-all picture of the real sales experience nothing beats traditional mystery shopping. Marketers might have the biggest advertising budgets to spend and the slickest PR campaigns at their disposal, but they will be wasting their money if a customer’s experience is not up to scratch.

In today’s high-tech world, sending people into shops up and down the country to test service levels and product knowledge can seem old fashioned. However, if it is done properly, mystery shopping remains an effective way to detect weaknesses in-store and elsewhere in the supply chain before they become serious problems. It can also motivate staff if the activity is used as a training and incentive tool rather than as a stick with which to beat them.

A survey of more than 1,775 mystery shopping visits by motivation specialists Grass Roots concluded that 26.3% of shoppers would not recommend the store they went to and that over the past 10 years the level of customer service overall is down by 3.3% and customer satisfaction by 1.6%. A 7% decline in product knowledge among retail staff is partly blamed for the decline.

In the face of such figures Tony Keen, a spokesman for the Market Research Society and chief executive of ESA Market Research, argues that mystery shopping is more relevant today than ever before. “Businesses want to be the best and they understand that to achieve customer ‘delight’ they must set their service standards accordingly,” he says. “Most companies operate in a competitive environment so must constantly review what they and their rivals are doing at the coal face.”

Indeed, having teams of field marketers on the road for weeks at a time and then adapting and repeating the survey every few months does enable a brand owner to measure many factors. Marketers need to know whether the price and availability of their product is the same as they agreed with the retailer and if promotions are being executed correctly. If there is a returns policy, they need reassuring that the customers see it is performing satisfactorily.

The agencies involved in this discipline collect large amounts of data as they trudge around the high streets of Britain. Some brands will have chosen a complex weighting matrix designed to highlight the areas they consider the most important to them. Other clients prefer to use mystery shopping to check if the rules set by head office are actually being complied with.

Yet there is a feeling that clients aren’t always using the information they gather effectively to drive improvement in customer service.

Chairman of The Field Marketing Council and the FDS Group, Alison Williams, says clients must be clearer about why, how often and how much they want to invest in mystery shopping. Activity can be covert or overt, but is often a mix of the two. “Mystery shopping must be well-planned before field teams are sent out, clients must work closely with their agency to ensure questionnaires are clear and can’t be misinterpreted,” says Williams.

She remembers one complicated survey designed by a brewery client which wanted the field reps to fill in 12 sections of questions across three A3 pages. The team had to visit every pub in the group three times and on each occasion report on the food and staff service. They also had to check if promotional material was displayed and note whether the pub was smart or tatty.

“This is fine to a degree but clients have to remember that the mystery shopper will usually answer the questions from memory once they leave the outlet,” she says.

Covert mystery shopping is a useful tactic if a brand is concerned that retail staff are not presenting a product correctly or there are gaps in their knowledge, which could ultimately cost sales.

For brewer InBev and its brand Stella Artois, FDS visited 10,000 on-trade outlets to check the temperature, head size and cleanliness of glasses when Stella was served. FDS also trained 25 staff to go into pubs, ask for a pint of Stella and then casually drop a thermometer into the glass without being noticed.

Such activity may sound mischievous, yet it proved to be a sound investment. InBev discovered that 70% of outlets served the perfect pint, so training costs were reduced because the company knew which pubs needed the most attention.

Testing product knowledge
In the technology sector, it is vital a product’s benefits are conveyed authoritatively. Agency Gekko ran a mystery shopping campaign for Olympus to find out whether in-store sales teams knew enough about its Digital Voice Recorder. The activity also gauged which brands individual stores were recommending. The results revealed that less than half (46%) of retail staff had a good level of product knowledge, so Gekko advised Olympus to improve its merchandising and point of purchase (PoP) support and organise more product briefings for shop floor sales teams.

As well as using mystery shopping to check if a supplier’s head office rules are being adhered to, the technique is increasingly being used by brands worried that the big retailers are not always complying with merchandising and promotional agreements signed off at their headquarters. The results from a series of undercover store visits can be a powerful weapon when planning negotiations with a supermarket.©”Mystery shopping is a key tool in ensuring consistency and implementation across all aspects of the retail experience,” says Lynda Edge, CEO of Headcount Worldwide Field Marketing. “Brand positioning, competitor activity, PoP execution and stock levels all require constant and consistent measurement and feedback.”

Varying techniques
Of course, sending teams of mystery shoppers around the country is not cheap and, like InBev, brands need to be convinced that the findings will highlight problems the marketing and sales teams were not already aware of.

A concern that mystery shopping was not offering value for money was one of the reasons it was dropped by some brands. There was also a feeling that employees were learning how to play the game, while many brand owners just wanted to try different methods to collate information on their customers’ experiences.

Some brands switched to interviewing customers as they left stores or asking them to complete satisfaction questionnaires. Other companies have tried new technology such as interactive voice recognition systems, a feedback tool which originated in the US, where consumers are asked to call an automated telephone number and leave their comments.

“Having tried different tactics clients now appreciate what core mystery shopping offers and are coming back to the discipline,” says Clive Nicolaou, group director and head of mystery shopping at market research agency TNS. “Clients have realised they can get more from their investment in this area by being smarter about how they use the results. This means not only acting on the findings to improve the customer’s experience but also to develop performance management and staff training.”

Nicolaou adds that clients are also combining traditional mystery shopping with other techniques to get even more robust results. He cites the example of a campaign TNS carried out for a DIY retailer to improve customer service in a sector with a reputation for poor product knowledge among staff.

The covert visits took place alongside customer surveys. These were split into three segments to target the tradesman, the DIY expert and the complete amateur who can be nervous about taking on any home improvements and is often desperate for advice. The results highlighted where improvements were needed and led to changes in the company’s training programme.

Regional differences
One area where mystery shopping is certainly still effective is when measuring and tackling regional differences. Local consumers and shop staff will have their own preferences and habits which national brands must be aware of.

One way of doing this is to ensure any campaign uses field representatives from every region that a brand covers. Clients need their agency to deliver accurate intelligence quickly from any town or city across the UK, but they do not want to incur additional costs for transporting a small number of staff to new locations.

“The field teams need to have a strong local knowledge which can be incorporated into the execution of the activity and the analysis of the results to create a more accurate research project,” says Joel Kaufman, managing director of Link Communication.

The growth in online shopping could see more field marketers swapping the streets for a desk as they test whether Web-based retailers are meeting customer expectations. A trained mystery shopper might make an initial e-mail enquiry; place an order and attempt to return goods to see where the service falls down.

“It can be more important for online retailers to measure the service they provide because in many cases they have little direct contact with their customer apart for the fulfilment of the order,” says the MRS’s Tony Keen.

Mystery shopping itself may be low-tech and quaintly traditional, but there is still plenty of life left in this old dog of marketing.

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