”The retailer increases the awareness of employees thanks to direct mystery shopper feedback“

© MSM Group/L. Scheffran

Christian Karrenbauer: "The increase in professionalism on the part of the customer leads to more sophisticated, variable and in part tightly timed project designs."

It sounds mysterious, but it is far from being cryptic. On the contrary, so-called mystery shopping provides important information about customers, employees and service in retail. Christian Karrenbauer is the Managing Director of the MSM Group. His company specializes in optimally uniting the words customer and satisfaction. In this interview, he explains why mystery shoppers are still valuable for retail.

Mr. Karrenbauer, these days the retail market has many different options to collect and analyze information. What value do mystery shoppers still have on the performance appraisal of sales staff?

The value is still very high, since no other tool is as precise and versatile. Test purchases deliver objective and detailed assessments on why a customer’s shopping experience was good or bad. Additional comments by the mystery shopper provide accurate insights into the events at the POS and therefore create an ideal basis to enhance employee performance.

Mystery shopping also lends itself to be combined with other measuring tools such as customer and employee satisfaction or POS testing. This way, companies receive much broader and more differentiated results that one method alone is not able to provide.

How have retail demands changed over the years?

Shopper studies have become more varied. Whereas ten years ago mystery shopping projects for the most part still resembled each other, retail has gotten to know the many options and utilizes them by now. This increase in professionalism on the part of the customer leads to more sophisticated, variable and in part tightly timed project designs.

What needs to be particularly considered when you train mystery shoppers?

The more demanding tasks by retail also caused an increase in requirements for our mystery shoppers and training courses. We always start with a written briefing in which the individual criteria of the questionnaire for the purchase order are illustrated and stated more precisely. In retail, you can usually illustrate this quite well with the help of graphics.

Training courses via telephone or web conferencing are added to this. We like to combine these with subsequent brief tests to make sure that all parties understand the contents of the test purchase. It is crucial that all mystery shoppers operate with the same set of criteria to ensure that the subsequent results are valid and comparable.

The customer likes to shop online. How does mystery shopping work on the Internet?

The term “mystery“ is of course somewhat misleading when it comes to online checks. Initially, all customers are essentially mystery shoppers to online stores. Since direct customer contact is often missing here, it becomes even more important to check a website about its functionality and convenience by trained shoppers.

Meanwhile, the second part, the verification of ordering and delivery processes, is still less distinct. This is why we recommend a combination of a concrete ordering scenario, in which the mystery shopper documents and rates all intermediate steps. This includes user friendliness, visual clarity, delivery time or quality delivery, but also aspects such as response time and quality in case of a question or the ease of returns and refunds.

The pinnacle of all this is an integrated multi-channel approach. In this case, you can launch a complaint with the call center for instance and then return the product at the actual store. This demonstrates the quality of a retailer in terms of a functioning multi-channel strategy.

What kind of mystery shopping is best suited for which retailer?

It is difficult to give a generic answer to this question, since it depends on the individual needs of each retailer. Generally, mystery shopping can answer many questions, ranging from store checks that emphasize hard facts to a wide variety of complex service checks. This also includes promotion checks, benchmarking against competitors and of course revision-based checks for attention and honesty. Feedback checks provide an advanced option for experienced retailers. The retailer increases the awareness of employees thanks to direct feedback by the mystery shopper, who describes events from a customer’s point of view.

What problems do your clients face most often?

Generally, the most common problems are still the old ones. Typically, traditional retail problems are an active sales approach, making the sale or the always-favorite topic of cross-selling. A general challenge is also the implementation of mystery shopping results into improved measurements. The people in charge of the outside organization, be that regional managers or store managers, are often left to their own devices.

What is your advice in this case?

Generally, we recommend a gradualist approach. Our MSM training division, which focuses on sales training and coaching at the point of sale, knows from everyday experience how difficult it is to influence the autopilot of the sales associate’s brain. It is not hard to ask the customer the finalizing sales question. However, this often still does not happen due to habit, lack of confidence or a lack of appropriate phrases that everyone needs to adapt to their particular case. This can be the starting point from which to comprehensively optimize service.

Subsequent mystery checks serve as a performance measurement and supply data to fine- tune services. The plan-do-check-act cycle is an essential part of continuous improvement in this instance.

What are today’s service challenges?

Despite the aforementioned improvement, the actual service spirit still has not been internalized in Germany. Yet service is one of the key criteria in the 21st century when we purchase products, which are ever harder to distinguish just based on hard facts. The shopping experience must not show any weaknesses at any key interfaces, but needs to make people happy and satisfied. Outstanding service means grueling work every day, which is why this challenge is very clearly tied to the demand for suitable employees.

The interview was conducted by Elisabeth Henning;