Beware Of The Secret Shopper Syndrome

Lots of firms — from banks to retailers — use “secret” or “mystery” shoppers to evaluate if individual stores/branches are delivering good (or the right) service. With this type of an approach, consumers are sent to different locations to complete a specific task (or tasks). Then they are asked to fill out a survey based on their experience. The shoppers usually receive some small payment for their efforts.

This is a great way to get a meaningful sample with structured data about customer experiences.  But unfortunately, sometimes this type of an approach can go bad — as it did for my wife during a recent trip to the post office to mail a package.

United States Postal ServiceWhen my wife got to the front of the line, the mailman behind the counter told her (this is accurate, but a bit paraphrased):

I’m can’t take credit cards; our machine has been broken for 3 hours…. My manager wouldn’t let me hang a sign out front where people would see it. We can’t mess with the decor, because a mystery shopper may come by and we’d lose points.

There’s something definitely broken here. In this branch of the post office, they are optimizing around the experience of a mystery shopper, not the actual customer.

Unfortunately, this problem is not confined to the USPS. And it’s indicative of a bigger problem: misaligned metrics. You can see this problem at a car dealerships whenever a salesperson tells a new car owner “you’ll be getting a survey and make sure to give me a perfect score” or when a salesman makes sure that only “friendly clients” get to fill out satisfaction surveys.

Whenever your metrics aren’t quite aligned right, it puts people in a position where they can — and often will — game the system. Who loses? Customers. Because instead of focusing on the customer and his/her experience, employees focus on optimizing some arbitrary metric — like consistent decor.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that data from sources like mystery shoppers can be very valuable. It’s just a matter of how the overall program (including employee incentives) is structured.

The bottom line: Focus on the needs of real, not mysterious, customers.

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (, a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

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