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Mystery shopping ensures service with a smile
By KYLE SCHLIESMAN
Inside Tucson Business

Some people love to shop. Some love it so much they shop for a living and make themselves available for any business that needs their services.

These professional shoppers, otherwise known as mystery shoppers, help service-oriented businesses evaluate how they are performing from a customer’s standpoint. They go into a business, do a little shopping and then file a report on the experience.

“Ideally, the business wants to find out how the customer is being treated,” said Nova Sipe, president of the customer service evaluation company Sipe & Associates of Tucson. “I’ve had clients ask for everything down to: “Is there salt and pepper in the shakers?”

There are some basic things that mystery shoppers look for, such as the appearance of the store and the responsiveness of its employees. Businesses can ask for very specific aspects to be examined as well. The shoppers need to pay attention to details and be able to write them in a report well after leaving the store.

“You’ve got to be objective,” Sipe said. “They may not go in with a chip on their shoulder.”

Aside from just retail location, mystery shopping service evaluations can extend to other areas of customer service as well, including call centers and Web sites. The evaluator can attempt to navigate through such systems to get the information they need and report whether or not they have problems finding it.

Sipe regularly works with about five shoppers and still does some of the shopping herself. Anonymity is of utmost importance for the mystery shoppers so they are not treated any differently than other customers. So far, Sipe hasn’t had a problem in Tucson with her shoppers being recognized by stores under evaluation.

Businesses use the evaluations for a variety of purposes. Some want to improve areas of customer service. Others want to reward good employees.

“We felt like it was a great opportunity to evaluate the customer service of our tenants and confirm any areas that they were excelling in. Also, it gave us the opportunity to see areas that needed improvements,” said Regina Harmon, property manager for the Foothills Mall, a client of Sipe & Associates for the past three years.

Volition.com, a Web site devoted to free stuff online, maintains a list of companies which hire and provide mystery shoppers.

Ray Sola, president of the company, began posting mystery shopping information on his Web site, www.volition.com, in 1996 because of what he calls “slimy people” who were selling short lists of this easy to find information for about $20 to those interested in becoming mystery shoppers.

Volition.com hosts the same information for free and has since become a premier Web destination for related information. Sola added a message board to the site, which receives about 2,000 visitors each day.

Many large national companies have in-house service evaluation programs. Other business contract the work. A retail location such as a McDonald’s may receive service evaluations from three different levels: the corporate entity, the franchise owner and the individual store’s management.

While some businesses hire full-time mystery shoppers, many of these people work on independent contracts. Some do it just for fun or just to fill time, Sipe said.

“Some people just like to be independent,” Sola said. “They don’t enjoy being in the corporate world.”

People can make a living at it, if they can find a full-time position. An average full-time mystery shopper can make $30,000 to $40,000 per year, Sola said. In fact, one acquaintance of Sola made about $100,000 in one year through mystery shopping, though that is unusual.

Shoppers are paid a small amount for each evaluation plus reimbursements for costs related to the evaluation.

“Depending on the shop, they can get free things out of it,” Sipe said. “I had my film developed free every month.”

In any case, there seems to be no lack of people willing to professionally shop.


Kyle Schliesman may be contacted at kyles@azbiz.com or 294-1200, ext. 124.





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Aug 30, 2002






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