The secret service

Written by Namrata Rao | Updated: Aug 18 2013, 06:40am hrs
Picture this. Youre at a store in a big shopping mall that is bustling with activity on a busy weekend. Youre done with your shopping and are trying to locate the cash counter. There are no signages to indicate that and no salespeople in view to help you. You are left with no option but to traverse the whole store again in search of that elusive counter.

Scene two. Youre in a queue at the cash counter of a retail store and the people ahead of you choose to pay by card. Fifteen minutes pass by but you still havent moved an inch because there is only one card-swipe machine at the counter and the signal is gone. You end up waiting another 15 minutes.

And if you thought this kind of treatment is only meted out to plebeians like us, think again. Earlier this month, American actor, producer and talk show host Oprah Winfrey had to endure the apathy of a salesperson at a posh Swiss boutique when she asked to see a $38,000 handbag. The shop assistant refused to show it to her saying it was too expensive.

These are just a few examplesothers involve poorly trained staff, inadequate logistics, bad planning, etc.of a shopping experience gone awry or worse still, forgotten. Sure, there are complaint/suggestion boxes and feedback forms available at all major stores these days, but how seriously they are taken is anybodys guess.

Enter mystery shopping

In simple terms, mystery shopping is a service offered by audit firms to help retailers evaluate their business practices. These audit firms, on behalf of the client companies, hire shoppers and conduct mystery audits. The idea is to send people who match the target clientele of businesses to pose as customers and experience the shopping environment. These customers then share their feedback with audit firms, which, in turn, share the observations with the clients to help them create a better shopping experience. And for the shoppers, its a win-win situation. They get paid while they shop.

Mystery shopping is a method to quickly yet efficiently evaluate ones business practices, deliverables and employees from the perspective of a non-biased consumer, says Pankaj Guglani, CEO and founder of Red Quanta, an audit firm. Mystery shoppers are people who are shopping as well as evaluating on behalf of the client, and whose identities and the date and time of visit are not known by the client; and hence, the mystery element.

Founded in 2009, RedQuanta has a network of more than 20,000 shoppers and has served more than 150 brands, including Sony, Mahindra, Mocha, Fun Cinemas, Mad Over Donuts, Philips, Reliance Digital, Ford, Metro, NIIT, Uninor and Bharat Matrimony. The firm, which has conducted more than 2,00,000 such mystery audits, also provides services like telephone audits, online audits and competition audits.

Mystery shopping has been standard practice in western markets since the 1940s and the concept is now catching on in India too, with brands slowly but steadily warming up to the benefits of the concept. Its taking time but Indian brands are warming up to the benefits of mystery shopping. From evaluating their business processes and service standards, to checking on what the competition is doing better, or using it as a tool to check revenue leakages, Indian brands are doing it all, says Guglani.

Any company that is customer-centric, such as telecom firms, banking and finance firms, the hospitality sector, among others, can employ mystery audits for introspection. The concept of mystery shopping is that a person goes as a normal customer and evaluates the store in terms of ambience, service standards, product knowledge and many other parameters, which depend on brand to brand as every brand has its own SOPs (standard operating procedures), says Gaurav Pachauri, managing director, WeMark, another audit firm that provides mystery and internal audits, and market research services to clients. WeMark, which started operations in September 2008, has conducted mystery audits for a total of 150 retailers across various verticals, including Wills Lifestyle, Park Avenue, Parx, Globus, among others. Pachauri says they have conducted over one lakh mystery audits so far.

Constant feedback

For the businesses, these audits provide an unbiased view of whether standards are being met and a chance to provide a better experience to customers resulting indirectly in an increase in sales. With a restaurant spread across multiple cities with different ownership patterns, it was imperative to have an unbiased view on the standards being met, says Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and managing director, Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality, the parent company of Mocha, which hired Red Quanta for conducting mystery audits. Also, it is an important source to hear the voice of the customers. It gives you an understanding of the challenges/successes and an unbiased opinion of the targeted customer base.

Amlani also says it is better to hire external agencies for such audits. Its better to have external agencies (doing this for us) as the customer is unknown and the opinion is unbiased. This may not happen if you have an in-house team doing it due to conflict of interest or a biased view, he says.

An official with the Delhi International Airport (DIAL), on condition of anonymity, says they have conducted audits for outlets at Terminals 1 and 3, as well as for utilities such as parking, radio cabs, etc. We have been doing this since the start of this financial year. In all, we have done about 400 audits till date and intend to continue doing it each month, he says. Based on the results of these audits, the official says, DIAL has identified key training needs for the staff.

We have been using mystery audits to devise an action plan for each of the brands present at T1 and T3. We have identified some key training needs so far and have undertaken a training programme for the staff of these brands working at our outlets. For example, we identified that the staff at some outlets needed training in Japanese and Chinese languages since the influx of passengers of these nationalities is more at certain outlets. We are training the staff now to speak to those passengers in their language and provide a better experience. Similarly, we also identified visual merchandising as an area of concern in some key concessionaires outlets during mystery audits. We are now training the staff there to manage visual merchandising as per set guidelines, he says, adding, We do monthly reviews where each account manager presents the status on the action plan devised.

On being asked if conducting these audits have indeed helped improve sales, the official says, Definitely. We would not be doing this it if it wasnt! Increase in sales is eventually a combination of multiple factors. If everything starts happening as per protocols, the service and staff standards improve and sales automatically go up.

Agrees Mochas Amlani, Though it is difficult to quantify it in terms of increase in sales, it definitely helps in aligning the team on the processes to be followed to provide a better experience resulting indirectly in increased sales as more and more customers leave satisfied and theres a chance of them frequenting again. It also results in streamlining operations and systems resulting in savings in terms of labour and minimising food wastages.

Win-win situation

For mystery shoppers, it is a win-win situation. Apart from the fact that the whole exercise is a fun activity and provides for a diversion from their day jobs, they also get paid to shop and evaluate the outlet. Says Aishwarya Verma, a 30-year-old marketing professional from New Delhi, There are multiple reasons, the biggest of which is that we get paid for buying stuff/availing ourselves of services that we need in our daily lives, be it at cafes, restaurants, retail stores, buying insurance or even while travelling. We can utilise our free time waiting at airports to conduct some audits and get paid for it.

It also gives consumers like us a platform to get our voices heard by the top management of these organisations. You realise you are an integral part of the feedback process. Plus, the thrill that we are actually conducting an audit and not simply buying something adds to the excitement, says Verma.

The process of registering oneself as a mystery shopper is fairly simple. Register yourself on mystery shopping websites, share your contact details and preferences and voila, you are a registered shopper now, says Verma.

Mystery shoppers should have strong observational skill set, be Internet-savvy and be ready to convey their feedback. The requirement of every client varies. We match profiles of mystery shoppers to a clients target customer base in terms of income, age and lifestyle. Shoppers include people across income brackets (R4 lakh to R4 crore per annum) and age groups (18-65 years), says Red Quantas Guglani.

There are also training sessions before one can actually conduct a mystery audit. Mystery shoppers can go through virtual training sessions sitting in the comfort of their homes. There is general training given as well as project-specific training which they have to adhere to so that their report can be accepted. We first give them dummy assignments and once they match our quality specifics, we offer them real assignments, says Guglani.

I have to keep all the guidelines in mind so that my report can be accepted. If I have any problems, I can always contact the project managers, says Tushar Agarwal, another mystery shopper. Agarwal, 25, works as a marketing executive for a pharma company in Delhi.

You just need to ensure your responses are honest and precise since your feedback will be taken with utmost seriousness by the top management and can help devise corporate strategies, says Verma.

The incentives for mystery shoppers generally vary from a few hundred rupees to a few thousand, depending upon how critical, complex and big the assignment is, says Verma. The incentives are generally pre-decided. Since you get paid doing stuff you would in any case have done, there mostly is no need to negotiate.