• May 1, 2013
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Stress Test Customer Service with Mystery Shopping

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What They Do

Mystery shoppers, who are usually hired by the service providers as independent contractors, are able to assess the agent's friendliness, demeanor, product knowledge, script adherence, effectiveness in offering upsell and cross-sell opportunities, and whether the agent addressed the caller by name once his identity was established. Other factors that mystery shoppers consider and score are time to answer, time spent on hold, call duration, task completion, the number of transfers, and whether they had to explain their problem over and over when they were transferred.

Though some mystery shoppers can be hired to evaluate interactive voice response (IVR) systems, it's not as big of an area of concern. "Most of our clients want to evaluate the agent, not the automation," says Mary Furrie, owner of Quality Assessments Mystery Shoppers, based in Rochester, Ill. "They, through their own technology, can evaluate the IVR…fairly easily and should know if it's working and routing [calls] properly."

In cases when the call center is slammed and callers are given the option of a call-back when an agent becomes available, mystery shoppers log the length of time it takes for the call-back and how close to the scheduled time the call was actually placed.

Mystery shoppers can also call competitors' contact centers to help clients benchmark their customer service against the rest of the industry or against specific firms in the same geographic area.

With a telephone mystery shopping program, an actual live account can be set up to track a complete order transaction through every stage of the process. The mystery shopper can use that account to find out not only about the ordering process, but also to track product delivery, product quality, and even evaluate the returns process.

In almost every case, the mystery shopping service provider creates a customized program tailored to each unique client, based on the size of its contact center, the number and type of calls received, the specific metrics it wants to gauge, and other factors.

"A client may have a particular area that he wants to measure, and, depending on the industry, we can tailor a program to find that specific detail," the MSPA's Denston points out. "We can get very specific information if that is what the client wants."

After completing the call, the mystery shopper completes a survey and files a detailed report of the interaction. These reports can supply subjective and objective feedback, and can be segmented by issue, location, department, or any other area the client deems necessary.

And because information without analysis doesn't offer a complete picture, many mystery shopping service providers follow up with detailed recommendations for improving customer satisfaction, as well as clear cost projections, benchmarks, industry best practices, and other details.

Most mystery shoppers also record their phone interactions and share those recordings with the client.

If call recording is to be a part of the mystery shopping experience, though, it is crucial for the business to be aware of applicable laws. Under U.S. federal law, and in most states, there is nothing illegal about one of the parties to a telephone call recording the conversation. However, 12 states (California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington) have two-party consent laws, meaning that both parties on a phone call have to agree to the taping.

In those states where consent is required, most contact centers are covered by having agents sign consent forms when they are hired.

A Larger Plan

Mystery shopping is, of course, not the only tool call centers have at their disposal to keep track of agents and determine which ones might need extra coaching or training. They can use call recording, live call monitoring, speech analytics, surveying, quality and performance management, workforce optimization, and voice-of-the-customer feedback management, as well as a host of other technologies, to uncover contact center problems.

"We record and listen to calls, too, but we want a real person on the call," Sylvan Learning's Kunz says. "Technologies are very valuable, but you can't use them exclusively."

That's the sentiment shared by the MSPA. Mystery shopping is a valuable tool for businesses, but it should in no way replace other customer service evaluation tools, the organization advises on its Web site.

The use of mystery shopping should be a single part of a much larger, company-wide program designed to develop and augment employee performance, the MSPA explains further.

Another benefit of using mystery shoppers is having someone else to do all the background work. When it comes to call recordings and some of the other technologies available, the call center manager is often left to do the heavy lifting. With call recordings and other forms of automation, managers "get every call that comes into the system," Overton says. "They do not have the time to check every call that comes in. They don't have enough people to handle all of the volume."

Furrie adds, "Mystery shopping helps isolate the good and the bad calls, without [the call center manager] having to find them on his own from among hundreds or thousands of calls that might have been recorded."

Some companies conduct their own telephone mystery shopping using their own employees to place the calls. This kind of "insourcing," while valuable and presumably more economical, might not always be the best option. For one, the employee's evaluation of the call might not always accurately reflect what really happened on the call.

"We are anonymous and work outside of the company, so we can give unbiased scores and reports," Furrie says.

Additionally, internal employees are likely making these mystery shopping calls in their spare time between their other duties, and taking them away from their primary functions can cost more than hiring a trained mystery shopper.

But it goes beyond that. "You need people who are consumers but who also have a trained eye," Paynter says. "[Mystery shoppers] can look at things technically and from a shopper's perspective."

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