Helen Edwards: time for a modern alternative to the mystery shopper

Helen Edwards
Helen Edwards

Mystery shoppers are, ostensibly, employed to check that a brand's customer charter is being lived up to, but could the budget for them be better spent elsewhere?

Have you ever met a mystery shopper? No, me neither, which I guess is the point. These are people who wait in line, incognito, and suffer the indifference and languor of British service without any recourse to 'Do you know I am?'

Still, they have two advantages over the rest of us as they watch the minutes tick by on that unanswered call, or witness the shoe-shop assistant coming back from the storeroom with the wrong shade in the wrong size.

First, they get paid to do it. Second, they can always gain vengeance for the worst excesses of service rudeness: 'About your Northampton branch, I fear we really do need to talk about Robert J...'

Marketers and HR think they need mystery shoppers, because how else are they going to check that the carefully chosen words in their 'customer charter' or 'customer bill of rights' have been lived up to?

Yet these statements are usually so baseline that the real mystery is why anyone has to take out a notepad to verify them.

Do we really need to check whether an attendant has deigned to say 'Hello'? Whether a waiter has bothered to smile? Or simply whether, as one heroically termed 'customer manifesto' puts it, 'The bank hears you'?

These are basics, hygiene factors, no more than that; every decently run service function should be automatically on top of them, leaving room for branded service as the elixir to aim for.

Yet service teams get fazed when they hear about mystery shoppers, even for base-level assessment, wondering warily how often they descend and where they might strike next.

Well, here is my standard answer to those people on the front line: every customer is a mystery shopper.

You don't know who they know; you don't know what kind of a stink will accrue to the brand, or to you, should they complain. Neither do you know how great you will feel if they happen to pass on something nice; you don't know whether they are having a rotten day and how much a bit of warmth and humanity, even from a stranger, might brighten it.

You simply don't know whether they are a star blogger, one tweet from whom can shift the brand-loyalties of thousands, with implications for everyone's jobs.

What you do know is that it is in the interests of the brand, your colleagues and yourself to give your best and do that little bit extra for every one of them.

So much for the pep talk - what about the week-in, week-out reality? Take that mystery-shopper budget and spend it in a different way. Circulate a team of 'roving perfectionists' instead.

They come in, unannounced, to join a service team and do everything right - look the part, smile with their eyes, uplift everyone around them, and effortlessly assimilate those nice verbal and tactile brand touches too.

They are 'new normalisers', there for a week, to inspire without a word and help to change the behavioural norms of those jaded, frontline teams to where you want them to be.

It's worth a try - because in the end, it isn't mystery shoppers that will build your brand, but happy ones.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. She is a former PPA business columnist of the year. Follow her on Twitter:


- Sometimes called a 'customer bill of rights', 'customer charter', 'manifesto' or even 'humanifesto', these are statements of what the customer can expect as a minimum from the brand.

- Sometimes it is just that: a minimum. See Tesco's vow that 'products meet (your) needs', or National Express' commitment to 'offering you a range of ways to buy your ticket' for master classes in basic expectations.

- Often the problem is sheer vagueness: CitiBank tells its customers that it will 'be there when you need us', while RBS will 'put your needs first'.

- Then there are the plain zany: TNT promises 'not to over-promise' and 'to know what planet we're on', while customers of US online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos.com can expect 'a little weirdness'.

- However, some brands set the bar a little higher and offer customers more specificity. One of the 12 pledges in NatWest's customer charter is 'to maintain banking services wherever we are the last bank in town', while coffee and sandwich chain Pret A Manger vows that none of its sandwiches will ever have sell-by dates, as they are all made on the day they are sold, and any leftovers are given to charities for the homeless that evening. US low-cost airline jetBlue, meanwhile, goes above regulatory requirements and promises financial compensation for delays as short as 90 minutes.

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