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 an experience management transformist, helping organizations improve business results by engaging the hearts and minds of their customers, employees, and partners. My "job" is Head of the Qualtrics XM Institute. The Institute is still being established, but our goal is to help organizations around the world thrive by mastering Experience Management (XM). As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. Prior to joining Qualtrics, I was managing partner of Temkin Group (leading CX research, advisory, and training firm), co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (, and a VP at Forrester Research. I'm a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Check out my LinkedIn profile:

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