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Mystery Shopping. Tales Of The Uninvited Part 1

Salespeople frequently ask me about the mystery shopping activity visited upon them by their employers.  As something of an intermediary, I am sometimes caught justifying the purpose of paid professionals pretending to be customers while empathising with salespeople who have dealt with the imbecilic end of the talent spectrum.

Having been mystery shopped many times as a salesperson myself, I understand the disappointment of learning that what seemed such a promising lead is actually nothing of the sort and the mild chagrin of spending all afternoon with someone I have felt certain is a mystery shopper while wishing they would skedaddle so I could find a real customer.  I’ve also sat with my manager of the time and listened to recordings of mystery shopping telephone calls.  This is where some whiney git who sounds nothing like me absent-mindedly handles a sales enquiry.  My boss would pause it to ask, “Was there anything else you could have asked at that time?” and I’d respond with, “Please tell me I don’t actually sound like that!”


mystery shopping


Being mystery shopped can raise your professional profile

Being pretty good at my job, mystery shopping furthered my reputation and career.  If you split salespeople into three groups, above average; average and below average, I was fortunate enough to be in the first group.  Now if you split that group in two, the swots who did things mostly right and the grumpy sausages who were largely unhappy with their lot and at odds with everything official, I was in the former, smaller group.  It seems that when the larger, latter group made sales, they did it via a series of illicit shortcuts, the power of their own cheeky bravado and a pact formed with the customer to pull the wool over their sales manager’s eyes by teaming up with him, her or them to get a better deal.  Mystery shoppers inevitably marked them down on everything whereas nerds like me always did okay.

If I suspected I had a mystery shopper (paranoia meant this was a regular notion), I focused and upped my game.  After all, enlightened employers paid out for good marks in the assessment report that followed.  Meanwhile, I’m aware from much of the fallout over the years that the cheeky chaps tend to get a bit indignant.  Uncertain how to do it by the book (it would be a first after all), they typically leak their suspicions with knowing glares while explaining why they are currently too busy to do things the way the manufacturer expects.  “We find that real customers don’t want all that bollocks!” says a stressed car salesman to his mystery shopping couple, unable to look them in the eye while he searches for their hidden microphone and camera.

So if by the laws of simple mathematics, above average salespeople (as measured by unit volumes) are in the minority, those who do it by the book represent a small fraction.  I was a later developer and had precious few opinions of my own, diligently copying the good people who taught me how to sell (Darrell and Alan) until I had it in my bones.  Fortunately for me, they were good ‘n’ proper and I was well set up.  Fortunately for them, I had a little something about me and could move it on a bit in my own way and fortunately for the manufacturers for whom I applied my efforts, what I added was generally to the greater good.

Goody two-shoes most of the time, but not always.  You can’t spend years in sales without getting a fair amount wrong and I cringe occasionally when some memory of my digressions drifts into my mind.  Somewhere in there is a reclining has-been telling stories of my sales glory while another supressed character, sick of the pompous ego of the crowing prima donna, puts his fingers down his throat and dredges up every mistake I’ve ever made, “Oh yeah? Well how about the time you did this?”  Oops!  He’s got a point, but fortunately, those things were rare enough not to coincide with arrival of a mystery shopper.


“Why does my boss want to persecute us like this?

As to why employers fork out for the service, it’s a matter of checking the application of standards and processes.  Within that, the company can confirm compliance and the absolute avoidance of anything which might compromise the legal diligence of the customer-facing employee.

I spend the biggest part of my working time training salespeople and I’m aware that there are no guarantees that they will return to their place of work and do what I have suggested, cajoled, proven to be the smarter option and possibly demonstrated.  If it has been learned (the first hurdle) it might last a day or it might last a lifetime.  If their own manager doesn’t agree with the corporate messages I have so carefully installed, they may well be undermined immediately by his or her recalibration of the returning team member.  Even if the sales manager does agree, it may still last only as long as it is monitored, supported, reinforced and encouraged.  Retraining every 4 to 12 months is a must but if the environment (most importantly, sales manager) isn’t on side, the whole enterprise is doomed from the start anyway.

In a simpler world than the one we have, all training would work the first time it is applied and mystery shoppers would simply confirm the fact that all is well.  As it is, the first ideal isn’t always true and the mystery shoppers sometimes screw their task up too.  How do they manage that?  Like this:


Mystery shoppers sometimes get rumbled

Should mystery shoppers always be impossible to spot?  Well that’s the general idea, but if not they still perform a useful function.  Like a police patrol car parked up on a hump on the motorway they serve to keep people behaving properly.  Like it or loathe it, if you’re being observed, the smart thing to do is to behave properly.  If you agree with the methodology (the processes of your business or in the analogy, the rules of the road), nothing need change and other than an element of self-consciousness, you just do what you always do and to the very best of your ability.  For people who regularly flaunt the rules, they have two big things to concentrate on, one is the fact that they are under scrutiny while the other is fixating on the completely alien task of doing things right.  No wonder some people are uncomfortable being watched, it’s just too much to deal with all at once.

You might assume that mystery shoppers ought to be good enough to perform their function without being spotted (and most are) but you could argue that they have a purpose in any event.  It’s why employers sometimes warn staff they will be ‘shopped’ because they anticipate a period where best practice will be adopted just in case the next customer is the plant.


sales training mystery shopping


And some of them are rubbish

Well there’s no getting around this one.  If they don’t understand enough about the mind-set of buyers in the field within which they are employed to make their evaluations, their behaviour will be at odds with real customers and their reports will be twisted.  Sometimes salespeople figure out who the shopper is by their manner, which is sufficiently odd as to cause the salesperson to wonder about them.  This might be the result of some loose recruitment parameters of the mystery shopping agency, or maybe they are just out of their depth and don’t know what they are doing.

Now then, pretty much anyone can buy a car, a holiday home, a motorcycle or a retirement property (to name a few of my clients’ industries) but the peculiar folks in society, true to the rules of game theory, tend to be rare.  Moderately unremarkable, a.k.a. normal, is what you get most of the time because that’s how it works and while if you dig deep enough, it seems that even the most ordinary folks are spectacularly unique, taken as a whole, most share more in common with each other than they have wide variances.


“The Lord prefers common looking people

That’s the reason He makes so many of them.”

Abraham Lincoln

Why is it then that so many salespeople rumble their mystery shopper by their dress sense, unusual patterns of speech, mode of transport or personal eccentricities?  I can only assume that this type of work; irregular in quantity and slightly theatrical in nature might attract a profile of applicant diverse from the actual customer.  Could that be it?

If the business wants a totally candid report this won’t work for them, the standard of shopper has to be better (profiled, briefed, natural), but if they are satisfied with keeping their sales team on its toes and maybe smoking out who the nerds like me are and who the rebels might be, then keeping them incognito doesn’t matter quite so much.

I’ve done some mystery shopping of my own over the years and have related a sample of those experiences within this series.


How about some actual examples?

There’s no way I’m naming names here.  Everyone has a bad day, like the very talented top-performing female salesperson who grumbled about her customers being late and interrupting her fiftieth attempt to have a mouthful of lunch.  Anyone who suffers from the raging Hangries (you know, the hungry-makes-me-angry thing) will understand the poor girl.

Speaking of lunch, I could talk about the salesman who ate his packed lunch while on test-drive, sat in the back of the demonstrator spraying crumbs as he issued directions to the couple in the front of the car.  Or the holiday home salesperson who noisily slurped coffee while sitting with customers who had travelled for hours, were parched but too polite to ask whether they too might be able to have a drink.

The indiscretions of idiots bad mouthing their own company while trying to ingratiate themselves with complete strangers are too numerous to mention.  My only question is how some of those arses kept their jobs a little longer (it always ends up the same way).

“It’s not the people you fire who are the problem,

It’s the ones you should fire and don’t.”

I’ve avoided the temptation of describing anything too recent here and know for sure that at least two of the retailers in question are long gone.  I fully expect the salespeople (if you can call them that) are also gone.  In this way I can be sure not to publicly decry a silly sod who, although pretty rubbish on the day I met him, might deserve a second chance.  If that sounds charitable, then let me be clear, none of these people would have a second chance in any organisation I managed.

Anyway, for your interest and amusement, I’ll confine myself to four visits I made myself.  I’ve done dozens, most okay, some poor (like the ones below), a precious few were excellent.  Coincidentally, these four are all to car dealerships, mostly because the vast majority of paid mystery shopping I’ve done has been in that industry.  The last one wasn’t actually an official mystery shopping expedition at all, but I thought you might appreciate it.

They may be a while ago, before some of you were born no doubt, but as usual with these things, every word is true, I promise.


Continue reading Part 2 of the Mystery Shopping 3 part series