Mystery shopping companies, secret shoppers and business owners share their insight on what makes excellent customer service
by Suzanne Bearne
Customer service has the power to make or break a business. Nearly every boss knows – or should know – that keeping your customers happy through offering best service is critical to survival. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has previously revealed just how important it is to make the customer feel special: “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”
One way businesses keep their customer service skills in check is by employing mystery shoppers. Undercover shoppers with a set brief to act out scenarios in retail or service environments can be a useful way to get an impartial view of your business.
Learn what needs improvement
“The main reason businesses use it is for improvement,” says Jeff Caplan, managing director of mystery shopping and market research firm Storecheckers. “In a very competitive environment, you’ve got to be on top of your game. With cheaper products available online, how you actually look after people is critical. Businesses can then use the information to give staff and managers clear and objective feedback.”
In-Time, a watch repair retailer with over 50 outlets across the UK, has used Storecheckers for the past four years to keep tabs on the service across its shops. Operations director Brian Jones says the company has found the programme useful in turning around its customer service.
“Early on in the mystery shopping programme we noticed that our staff didn’t respond very quickly to approaching customers,” says Jones. “They felt they were being disturbed when customers were coming up to them at the counter. We had to change the culture and instil the importance of reacting quickly, maintaining eye contact and having good communication skills.”
Mystery shopping has also helped In-Time change its staffs’ attitude to upselling. “We noticed that often a customer would come in for a battery replacement and their watch strap would be falling to bits and staff would overlook this. We alerted all our staff that it’s their job is to react to what customers need even if the customer hasn’t picked up on it yet.”
Simon Johnson, co–owner of Chiswick-based Marmalade Jewellery, organises for a mystery shopper to visit every eight weeks. He says on one occasion a member of staff did not adhere to protocol by failing to greet the customer properly, leading to a quiet word with the individual.
At Face Values, a beauty salon in Altrincham, owner Lynne Tarren-Hope organises mystery shopping through a company called Hidden Beauty. Tarren-Hope says she views mystery shopping as her eyes into the treatment rooms. “I can’t be in the room with my therapists but this gives me a way of double checking they’re doing the right things. You can get complacent. It’s given me insight into how my different therapists work. They did pull us up when a therapist failed to advise the client that they should not go swimming or sunbathe soon afterwards. It gives us a push.”
Strike the right balance with sales
Experts agree that customer service needs to start from the moment the customer walks through the door. Caplan says: “One of the most crucial points is that on a customer’s arrival into the business, whether that’s the reception of local solicitors or a petrol station, they want to feel like they’re wanted or feel greeted by a friend.”
But don’t go to the extreme and pounce on a customer when they walk through the door. “It can put fear in people, and they feel pressured and don’t want to stay. By giving people a little time, they’re more likely to come back and ask for help.” Also, make sure staff are trained, know their product and feel confident.
Cheryl Flink, chief strategy officer at mystery shopping company Market Force, says: “It’s very important that staff are knowledgeable about a product and when they’re recommending something they’re thinking about the customer’s wellbeing. If people start coming on like a car sales person on commission then that’s very false.”
Johnson says good customer service is about asking the right questions. “The way a good sales process works is by finding out what they’re after. For us it’s a very delicate process. We ask is it a gift, who is it for, how is it going to be used, when is the occasion and we’ll help them make a decision based on the answers. Ultimately it’s not about sales commission.”
Similarly, online experience needs to be excellent, with clear navigation and easy-to-use booking systems and clear calls to action. Geraldine Smith is retired from her main job, but she earns some money as well as freebies from regular mystery shopping assignments with Storecheckers. She points out that many companies provide good customer service but says the difference between providing good and excellent is when the staff are “interested in you as a customer and want to get a product that’s right for you rather than just going through the motions.”
Go beyond the call of duty
Smith once visited a coffee shop as a mystery shopper and had to complain about a cup of coffee. She says they offered her several alternatives, and recommended biscuits to go with it. “They really cared about me and they didn’t make me feel like I was being an awkward customer.” It’s a cliché, but excellent customer service is going that extra mile to put a smile on a customer’s face.
“It’s the little things like asking if you would like a seat or a coffee while you’re browsing a clothes shop, or suggesting a scarf that might suit the garments I’m trying on,” says Smith. “It’s the extra little touches.”
Jill Spencer, vice president of Mystery Shopping Providers Association in Europe highlights some recent examples of excellent customer service. She says that when an elderly lady called Sainsbury’s contact centre asking how to get hold of an item not stocked in her local store, the member of staff who took the call realised that the customer lived round the corner from her, bought the product and dropped it off for the customer.
One mystery shopper, who asked to remain anonymous, points out that one of her worst customer experiences was when she had to visit a mobile phone retailer, only for a member of staff there to tell her that they didn’t have good coverage in her area for her and then walked her to a nearby competitor. “She should have said sorry and then it was up to me to find another company.”
Businesses can let themselves down by not offering a clean and tidy environment. “I’ve been in coffee shops where tables haven’t been cleared and there’s crumbs about,” says Smith. She adds that many companies fall down on not providing paper for comment boxes at the till. Provide a welcoming and clean store environment and put customers at the forefront of your strategy, and they’ll be yours for life.
For more information on how a mystery shopping program can help increase your business, visit Mystery Shopping Providers.
"There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else."
~ Sam Walton
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