Professional shoppers should be used in conjunction with call monitoring, speech analytics, surveying, and voice-of-the-customer feedback management.
By Leonard Klie – Posted May 1, 2013
Mystery shopping is a $1.5 billion industry that employs more than 1.5 million people worldwide. It has served for decades as a way for companies to measure the quality of the customer service their employees provide.
While typically associated with the on-premises experience at retail outlets, hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, fast food outlets, banks, gas stations, car dealerships, and health clubs, mystery shoppers have expanded their roles into the contact center, helping companies uncover the most common customer complaints.
If you want to find out if your call center is completely free of the long hold times, endless transfers, overly scripted and impersonal conversations, and unempowered employees that usually frustrate customers, you can now hire any one of a growing number of mystery shopping companies to act as your ears on the front lines of customer service.
“The retail industry as a whole is growing, and so are the number of opportunities to interact with customer service reps,” says Dan Denston, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA), which has more than 300 member companies worldwide. “As a result, there are a growing number of companies that do telephone performance testing, checking the quality of the customer service rep interactions.”
One such company is Shoppers Critique International (SCI), a mystery shopping services provider in Longwood, Fla. Mystery shopping via the phone and electronic channels makes up about two-thirds of the company’s business today.
“Most people now go online to research products before a purchase, and then they make contact with the company by email or phone to make specific inquiries,” explains Paul Bell, national sales director at SCI.
Mercantile Systems, a Brentwood, Calif.–based mystery shopping services provider, performs about 30,000 telephone shops per year for a range of businesses. It’s a growing area for the company, representing about 25 percent of its business today. “We’re getting a lot more interest in it,” says CEO Dan Cosgrove.
At Confero, a market research and mystery shopping services provider in Cary, N.C., telephone mystery shopping requests have increased in the past few years as well.
The service, according to Janet Morrison, Confero’s business development manager, was originally popular in banking, healthcare, and education, but recently “has really been branching out to a lot of different industries because there’s more of a focus on improving the customer experience across the board.”
The reasons companies need to evaluate their phone support are very basic: For most customers, the phone is still the first point of contact with a company, and there’s an expectation that the phone will be answered in three rings or less and that the agent who picks up the call will be warm, enthusiastic, courteous, and capable of addressing callers’ issues.
“If the company does not make the best first impression, the customer will go somewhere else,” Morrison explains.
Trish Overton, president of Mystery Shoppers, in Knoxville, Tenn., agrees. “In today’s economy, you can’t afford to lose customers,” she says. “How the call is answered could determine whether [customers] make a purchase.”
Matthew Kunz, senior director of global brand standards and quality at Sylvan Learning, which operates—either directly or through franchise agreements—about 900 facilities around the country to provide students with tutoring, homework help, study skill building, and test prep, knows that all too well.
“A lot of customers call for more information before coming into one of our centers,” he says. “The phone call is incredibly important.”
Kunz has used Confero to evaluate his company’s telephone reps since late 2011, and last year budgeted about $15,000 for the service. Confero mystery shoppers made about 300 calls to Sylvan’s phone reps throughout the year, and Kunz plans to add to that this year. “Some of our franchisees have expressed an interest in having this done monthly,” he says.
That’s just fine with Kunz, who is a big supporter of mystery shopping. “It’s helped us be more responsive,” he says. “And our staff likes it because it helps them do their jobs better.”
Stacey Paynter, owner of marketing firm Strategic Connections, which is based in Larkspur, Calif., has used mystery shopping to evaluate how agents carry out campaigns. Paynter has been using Mercantile Systems for the past six years.
“I’m a big fan of mystery shopping,” she says. “It’s an insurance policy for my marketing to let me know if it’s working, if my efforts are resonating with customers and converting sales. I can make sure the brand’s message is being delivered consistently.”
When it’s not, Paynter says mystery phone shopping can help quickly uncover operational glitches that need to be corrected. “It’s uncovered business opportunities I didn’t even know about,” she says. “And often, it’s what you don’t know that can hurt you the most.”
Kunz also appreciates the speed at which he can get that kind of information. “I have a six-person staff to do quality control for nine hundred centers, and Confero does things much quicker than I could ever do them internally. It allows me to keep my staff to do what they’re paid for. It’s a better use of my resources,” he says.
What They Do
Mystery shoppers, who are usually hired by the service providers as independent contractors, are able to assess the agent’s friendliness, demeanor, product knowledge, script adherence, effectiveness in offering upsell and cross-sell opportunities, and whether the agent addressed the caller by name once his identity was established. Other factors that mystery shoppers consider and score are time to answer, time spent on hold, call duration, task completion, the number of transfers, and whether they had to explain their problem over and over when they were transferred.
Though some mystery shoppers can be hired to evaluate interactive voice response (IVR) systems, it’s not as big of an area of concern. “Most of our clients want to evaluate the agent, not the automation,” says Mary Furrie, owner of Quality Assessments Mystery Shoppers, based in Rochester, Ill. “They, through their own technology, can evaluate the IVR…fairly easily and should know if it’s working and routing [calls] properly.”
In cases when the call center is slammed and callers are given the option of a call-back when an agent becomes available, mystery shoppers log the length of time it takes for the call-back and how close to the scheduled time the call was actually placed.
Mystery shoppers can also call competitors’ contact centers to help clients benchmark their customer service against the rest of the industry or against specific firms in the same geographic area.
With a telephone mystery shopping program, an actual live account can be set up to track a complete order transaction through every stage of the process. The mystery shopper can use that account to find out not only about the ordering process, but also to track product delivery, product quality, and even evaluate the returns process.
In almost every case, the mystery shopping service provider creates a customized program tailored to each unique client, based on the size of its contact center, the number and type of calls received, the specific metrics it wants to gauge, and other factors.
“A client may have a particular area that he wants to measure, and, depending on the industry, we can tailor a program to find that specific detail,” the MSPA’s Denston points out. “We can get very specific information if that is what the client wants.”
After completing the call, the mystery shopper completes a survey and files a detailed report of the interaction. These reports can supply subjective and objective feedback, and can be segmented by issue, location, department, or any other area the client deems necessary.
And because information without analysis doesn’t offer a complete picture, many mystery shopping service providers follow up with detailed recommendations for improving customer satisfaction, as well as clear cost projections, benchmarks, industry best practices, and other details.
Most mystery shoppers also record their phone interactions and share those recordings with the client.
If call recording is to be a part of the mystery shopping experience, though, it is crucial for the business to be aware of applicable laws. Under U.S. federal law, and in most states, there is nothing illegal about one of the parties to a telephone call recording the conversation. However, 12 states (California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington) have two-party consent laws, meaning that both parties on a phone call have to agree to the taping.
In those states where consent is required, most contact centers are covered by having agents sign consent forms when they are hired.
A Larger Plan
Mystery shopping is, of course, not the only tool call centers have at their disposal to keep track of agents and determine which ones might need extra coaching or training. They can use call recording, live call monitoring, speech analytics, surveying, quality and performance management, workforce optimization, and voice-of-the-customer feedback management, as well as a host of other technologies, to uncover contact center problems.
“We record and listen to calls, too, but we want a real person on the call,” Sylvan Learning’s Kunz says. “Technologies are very valuable, but you can’t use them exclusively.”
That’s the sentiment shared by the MSPA. Mystery shopping is a valuable tool for businesses, but it should in no way replace other customer service evaluation tools, the organization advises on its Web site.
The use of mystery shopping should be a single part of a much larger, company-wide program designed to develop and augment employee performance, the MSPA explains further.
Another benefit of using mystery shoppers is having someone else to do all the background work. When it comes to call recordings and some of the other technologies available, the call center manager is often left to do the heavy lifting. With call recordings and other forms of automation, managers “get every call that comes into the system,” Overton says. “They do not have the time to check every call that comes in. They don’t have enough people to handle all of the volume.”
Furrie adds, “Mystery shopping helps isolate the good and the bad calls, without [the call center manager] having to find them on his own from among hundreds or thousands of calls that might have been recorded.”
Some companies conduct their own telephone mystery shopping using their own employees to place the calls. This kind of “insourcing,” while valuable and presumably more economical, might not always be the best option. For one, the employee’s evaluation of the call might not always accurately reflect what really happened on the call.
“We are anonymous and work outside of the company, so we can give unbiased scores and reports,” Furrie says.
Additionally, internal employees are likely making these mystery shopping calls in their spare time between their other duties, and taking them away from their primary functions can cost more than hiring a trained mystery shopper.
But it goes beyond that. “You need people who are consumers but who also have a trained eye,” Paynter says. “[Mystery shoppers] can look at things technically and from a shopper’s perspective.”
With all this in mind, any company hiring a mystery shopping services provider needs, first and foremost, to identify what it considers to be the truly important customer service characteristics and the objectives of providing phone support. Next, the firm should work with the mystery shopping services provider to incorporate those variables into the survey questionnaires and to devise the shopping experiences that the mystery shoppers will act out. The MSPA suggests that this scenario should be realistic, representing a natural consumer behavior that can be carried out convincingly by the mystery shopper.
To be fair to the agent, the scenario should also involve processes that fit within her job description and for which she has been properly trained, according to the MSPA.
The association also advises that “to be ethical,” the staff at the location being tested “must have been advised that their performance may be checked from time to time through mystery shopping.”
Having employees know they can be mystery shopped at any time often translates to immediate behavioral changes: Since they don’t know which calls are from real customers and which ones are from mystery shoppers, they tend to be on their best behavior with every call they handle.
As for the types of calls they make, Furrie suggests mystery shoppers begin with the basics. “If your [call center] can’t get the general stuff right, the more advanced stuff is not going to be right either,” she says.
Once the firm settles on what shoppers will look for, the mystery shopping company will then select shoppers with the appropriate expertise. With hundreds of thousands of mystery shoppers available throughout the United States and Canada, service providers can match any company’s customer profile or geographic characteristics to guarantee a recognizable area code, dialect, and regional familiarity. This adds credibility to the mystery shopping call.
“Mystery shopping is a very horizontal plan of action,” Denston says. “You can get shoppers of all races and backgrounds.”
The contact center must determine how many calls are to be made and over what period of time. At the least, it should consider the number of agents, hours of operation, and call volume.
It is universally accepted across the industry that mystery shopping needs to be done multiple times, at different times of the day, and on different days of the week to catch a broader sample of agents.
Furrie, who got her start in the call center industry, says most of her clients do regular testing, starting small and then scaling up once they see the value in the reports provided. “They try it, they like it, and it becomes a part of their regular processes,” she says.
Confero’s Morrison also suggests running tests repeatedly. “It’s always good to have an ongoing program so you can see how employees improve over time,” she says.
Spreading out the mystery shopping phone calls also ensures that the test will hit the right mix of employees. Clients often want the mystery shoppers to target specific employees, but that is usually next to impossible to do without arousing suspicion. “It’s often the luck of the draw who picks up the call that comes in,” Furrie says.
SCI’s Bell also recommends continued service checks just because turnover in the contact center industry is so high.
And then, it’s important to have clearly defined goals of what to do with the information that the mystery shopping uncovers. Most professionals in the field agree that mystery shopping should not be used for punishment. On its Web site, the MSPA clearly states that mystery shopping “must not be used as the sole justification for dismissals and reprimands.”
“The key to successful mystery shopping is not to use it as a big hammer from above,” Paynter adds. “Use it instead as a training tool and to reward great performance. Use it to recraft your scripting, for training, and to build best practices.”
As a final caveat, Denston suggests that companies looking to hire a mystery shopping firm should look for one with experience. More important, though, “look for a real partner,” he states emphatically. “With any business-to-business relationship, you want to work with someone you can feel comfortable with.”