Magazine article Marketing

When That Secret Agent Pays a Visit

Magazine article Marketing

When That Secret Agent Pays a Visit

Article excerpt

No sector is safe from the scrutiny of the mystery shopper.

Unbeknown to many shoppers, Britain's booming consumer culture is policed by a small army of secret agents who are employed by retailers to monitor the quality of their service.

Few sectors are excluded from the phenomena of mystery shopping. Besides shopping in the high street, agents drink in pubs, eat in restaurants and stay in hotels; they travel on trains and buses, buy petrol and visit tourist attractions.

Chief users have been producers and retailers, but the method is also being adopted by other organisations ranging from health care to local government. And where once it was handled almost exclusively by field marketing agencies, mystery shopping is now being offered as a service by market researchers such as NOP, Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) and Research International.

The customer experience is not always what management had intended, says Chris White, managing director, mystery shopping at NOP. The information generated from covert surveys can help management direct resources effectively.

Yet the agencies are at pains to downplay any negative connotations. Gone are the days when the aim was to catch out rogue employees, they say - a practice some associate with the hire-and-fire culture in the US.

"It's counter-productive to create a climate of fear," argues Mike Garnham, managing director at Headcount Field Marketing. "Our clients do mystery shopping because it helps them find out how service is being received by customers and to identify training needs." Effectively it is the company that is being tested as much as individual employees.

Often the mystery shop will be an element in an incentive programme aimed at stimulating sales. For example, staff at a high street electronics retailer who recommend one manufacturer's camera over a rival's can win a [pounds]25 voucher. They are told about the programme in advance and warned to expect a mystery shopper.

Far from dreading the visit, the prospect of reward can cause a buzz of excitement. But it has to be done discreetly. "Too often in the past this sort of campaign back fired," says Phil Cottier, managing director of IMP field marketing. "You can imagine how it feels if someone comes up to you and says, 'too bad you didn't get all my questions right or you could have won a weekend in Paris'."

IMP has several clients in the hi-tech sector, whose staff - due to rapid turnover-may not know much about the products they are selling. Other big users are supermarkets, whose stores can easily lose track of the paperwork sent to them by head office and, as a result fail, to run important promotions.

Drinks companies also use mystery shoppers to check their products are being served properly. For UDV's Gordon's, bar staff were trained to make the perfect gin and tonic, using branded glasses, swizzle sticks and ice buckets. Every month Headcount sent out mystery drinkers and followed this with a visit from a brand representative, either to reward individuals with vouchers or to suggest training.

"It's not Big Brother tactics, just maintaining standards," Garnham insists. "The pubs support the activity because evidence shows good training and the resultant service levels can boost their sales by 40%," he adds.

One reason for using mystery shoppers is to provide an objectivity that may otherwise be missing. In one case handled by FDS, a major brewery had been relying on its area managers for information about service quality, but suspected they were not being as tough as they should be.

Unacceptable allowances

"The managers were letting themselves be influenced by their personal relationships," explains Alison Williams, group managing director of FDS. "For instance, if they knew that problems were being caused by an illness in the landlord's family they tended to make allowances for that, which was not acceptable to the brewery. …

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