My reasons for becoming a mystery shopper were sketchy. No doubt the word “mystery” appealed to the Nancy Drew, girl detective in me. And I have always considered myself a connoisseur of good customer service, commenting on the quality of restaurant or retail service gratis for friends or relatives within earshot. Why not get paid for my talent at discerning good customer service, I thought.
What I found out, however, is that mystery shoppers do not judge how good the service is at the stores or restaurants at which they secretly “shop.” Instead, they are paid the approximate wage of a third-world factory worker to compare how well an employee’s service meets a corporation’s robotic customer service formula.
You probably know what I mean about misguided customer service if you’ve ever called a business and been assaulted with a 30-second greeting (e.g., “Good evening, thank you for calling Pizza Paradise, this is Tiffany, your pizza consultant. Can I tell you about our pizza-licous specials today?”). Having never worked for a business that attempted to script my every word and action, it wasn’t until I became a mystery shopper that I learned the reason for such inane behavior is that many modern companies treat their personnel as if they were human machines. From how to answer the phone to what to say when a customer walks in the door, employees are instructed to follow the directions of so-called customer service experts thousands of miles away in corporate headquarters, regardless of the situation.
The only problem is, many of the things retail and restaurant employees are expected to do and say result in annoying the customer. As a mystery shopper, for instance, I have been asked to document how quickly I was greeted by an employee. This explains why you are instantly asked by an over-eager employee, “How can I help you” when you enter a fast food restaurant -even when you are deliberately standing a football field away from the cash register with your eyes gazing up at the overhead menu. If you knew what you wanted to order, wouldn’t you be standing right in front of the cash register so you wouldn’t have to scream out your order?
An equally irksome customer service experience is when you’re looking at clothes in a retail store, only to be jolted out of your reverie by a perky clerk asking, “Can I help you find anything today?” Now I could understand this question being posed if I were walking through the store with a quizzical look on my face, but if I appear to be competently perusing the racks, what special powers of observation can the clerk add to my shopping experience? I have been tempted to reply in such cases, “Only if you have all the really good merchandise hidden in the back,” but I have some compassion for people who are coereced to ignore obvious social cues or risk getting pink-slipped.
As a mystery shopper, my job was to score how well employees adhered to whatever silly customer service behaviors their corporate employer demanded of them, a task that I quickly found reprehensible, if not immoral. Though automation has its place-it’s faster to build a car with machines than by hand, for instance-people should never be automated. Instead, companies should hire capable people, train them well, and then trust their employees to treat each customer in an appropriate fashion.
There’s a vast difference between the employee who is texting his friend instead of helping a customer and the discerning employee who waits until a customer displays a need for help before offering assistance. That mystery shoppers are compelled to give both of these employees the same flunking grade reveals the failure of many modern-day corporations to authentically satisfy their customers.