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Customer Experience

Look beyond mystery shopping to improve your customer experience

We’ve heard of them before, but what does a mystery shopper do and how can they drive customer experience improvements?

What is a mystery shopper?

A mystery shopper, or a secret shopper, is a person who is hired to audit a company to see if they meet standards. They can take on the role of a customer and feedback on their experience, or they can observe and provide a score.

This person is unknown to the employees of the organization, so there is no bias or favor shown towards them. This ensures that the mystery shopper can get a clear account of what a customer would experience.

To truly understand the customer experience, the employees cannot know they are serving a mystery shopper.

Who hires them?

Mystery shoppers are common in retail sectors, where customer service can’t be measured easily by an internal manager or colleague. They are also frequently hired to make evaluations for hotels, airlines, restaurants, and in practically every industry that depends on an in-location experience.

What do they do?

There are many standards that a company wants to uphold. A mystery shopper is hired to help audit a business against these standards and give each organization a score.

Their task could involve long periods of time (like staying in a hotel) or could be a quick task (like reviewing a display stand for correct labeling of items).

They may also be asked to interact with employees, take photos as evidence of their findings, or to notice certain things (like if there is good lighting near products).

Whatever their task, they will be gathering information and assessing their experience against a set of predefined questions to measure the customer’s experience.

The results will be submitted and fed back to help the hiring company judge their location or site against their own standards or goals. They can be submitted by completing an online or mobile survey, or paper forms.

Advantages and disadvantages of using a mystery shopper service

The advantages of using mystery shoppers:

  • It can be a tool to encourage high standards of customer service on a consistent level. If employees are aware that they may be assessed by a mystery shopper at any time, they are more likely to adhere to strict policies around till-side sales and procedures.
  • Mystery shoppers provide awareness for head office or corporate management on the performance of multiple locations. This can help the organization make sure each location is performing to the same and right standards that meet their brand promises.
  • Assessments can show areas that employees or products aren’t performing well in. For example, if a product fails to live up to what it is described as, or if an employee fails to provide the right customer service. This can lead to product development changes or employee training.
  • As a mystery shopper poses as a customer, they are able to receive the most accurate reflection of the ‘real’ customer experience. In this way, the assessments can be viewed as eye-opening and honest accounts.
  • Mystery shoppers can be selected by demographic indicators, to help reflect the target customer as closely as possible. In this way, companies are getting the benefit of their target customer’s thoughts and opinions.
  • Mystery shopping can help root out issues that can prevent long-term or future problems, that impact customer retention and sales.

The disadvantages of using mystery shoppers:

  • If an employee has an unfavorable mystery shopping assessment and there isn’t due process to understand the context of the situation (if an employee was unwell or new to the role), then this could apply unfair pressure.
  • The mystery shopper may place their own personal bias on their assessment of an employee, which could impact the data.
  • The mystery shopper assessment provides a thorough evaluation of the product or service, it is only reflecting one single point in time, which may have been influenced by active factors at the time.
  • Assessments aren’t repeated on a like-by-like basis, with the same employee under the same conditions, so each assessment must be understood within that context. This can limit how replicable the results are and makes comparing data over different periods of time hard to do.
  • The quality of the assessment report is dependent on how much information was retained by the mystery shopper and recalled after the event, so there is always a chance for results to be reported inaccurately.

What questions to ask in a mystery shopper audit?

Mystery shopper survey questions can help explore several themes:

  • The productivity and performance of employees
  • Specific product standards as offered by the brand promise
  • How well practices and procedures are delivered by the brand representatives
  • Exposing the extent of any divide between a company’s expectations and the actual level of performance, brand promise versus reality

The key to focusing on the right standards and asking the right questions is to keep in mind the purpose of mystery shoppers; which is to understand the gap between brand promise and reality. The questions or standards should center around whether a piece of the brand promise was met or not, from product through employees performance through emotional IQ.

Surveys should use mainly closed questions requiring ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, sometimes noted as “meet” or “did not meet”. This gives clear quantifiable data that can be understood quickly and tallied up against other results.

However, using open-ended questions (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How?) are useful for getting more detail, especially when assessing employee interactions. Your survey could provide space to expand on the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answer when necessary.

Questions can be specifically grouped by categories, to make sure enough focus has gone into exploring the area. If we use the example of a mystery shopper going into a retail store to buy a sandwich, some question examples would be:

Store appearance

  • Outside the store, was there anything blocking the entrances or exits?
  • Outside the store, was the parking lot accessible and well-maintained?
  • Outside the store, was there clear brand material visible?
  • When you entered the store, was the security guard visible?
  • When you entered the store, was the store clutter free?
  • Were the aisles clear of stock carts?
  • Was there any visible litter on the store floor or at sales points?
  • Enter the toilets. Were the customer toilets clean?

Employees performance

  • When you entered the store, were you greeted by an employee within 15-30 seconds?
  • Did this employee smile?
  • Did the employee offer to help you?
  • Ask this employee/an employee for assistance to find an item. Did they help you?
  • Did they lead you to the display?
  • Did they recommend a product?
  • Did you feel listened to and understood?
  • Did they say a nice goodbye message when they left?


  • When you arrived at the display, was the display ordered and full of products?
  • Was the item available to purchase?
  • Did you find the product easily?
  • Did the labels and layout make sense?
  • Was the product damaged?
  • Was the product within sell-by date?

Purchasing experience

  • Were there more than three customers ahead of you when you joined the line?
  • Did the cashier greet you with a smile?
  • Did the cashier offer you a bag?
  • Did the cashier mention the loyalty scheme?
  • Ask a question. Did the cashier answer in a friendly manner?
  • Did the cashier thank you and give a closing greeting?
  • Did you receive the receipt?
  • Was the experience pleasant?

Go beyond mystery shopping to improve the experience

Mystery shopper audits can help you understand the gap between the expectations the brand may have set for a customer and what is actually happening.

It's a high-definition camera that showcases every detail. But it’s a single point in time that doesn’t give you the valuable context you need to make decisions.

Alternatively, customer or guest satisfaction surveys can look at the ongoing customer experience from the perspective of actual customers. This is like taking a continuous video of the customer experience. The image may be a little blurrier but you have data that is supported by more than a single person's report.

Mystery shopper and customer experience surveys when used together can help an organization assess their true performance and make changes to close the gap between customer expectations and reality.

Use our free customer satisfaction survey template to guide you through setting up and collecting customer experience data