Selected Article
Title How & Why to get a customer's view!
Date Published 01/01/2003
Author Barbara Gerber
Publication LTC Confidential

JANICE PERKINS looked like any other person shopping for a long

term care facility for a family member. She had scheduled an

appointment to take a tour and was waiting in the

lobby for the marketing representative.No one

had informed her that the marketing representative

was delayed. An hour later, Perkins drove

home, her work having just begun. She dictated a summary of her visit

into her tape recorder and filled out her questionnaire, noting not only her extended wait in the lobby, but all other aspects of

her visit.The receptionist had been friendly and

courteous; the buildings and property clean and

well maintained; the residents looked neat, clean,

and happy; and the marketing representative was

friendly, thorough, knowledgeable, and professional.

Perkins is a mystery shopper, hired by the facility’s

management to provide feedback on things such as

first impressions of the facility; customer service; the

marketing and rapport-building skills of the marketing

representative; and what messages of responsiveness,

sensitivity, quality, and professionalism are

being communicated. A mystery-shopping project often begins when the

incognito shopper makes an inquiry call to the retirement

community or assisted living or skilled nursing

facility asking for information and continues through a

first visit to the facility, sometimes extending through a

second and third visit. It concludes when the mystery shopper

reports on his or her experiences. In most cases, the

mystery shopper uncovers examples of outstanding service

as well as opportunities for improvement. With 14 years of experience in mystery shopping at assisted living facilities, retirement communities, and skilled nursingfacilities, I can offer the following suggestions and ideas for

new and experienced mystery-shopper users.Whether you

love or hate the concept, it’s important to understand what

mystery shopping can and can’t do for your organization.

Be clear about your goals

First and foremost, you need to know what you want to

accomplish by mystery shopping. Most people working in

long term care organizations think of mystery shopping as

merely a marketing tool for evaluating customer service

and sales effectiveness. Its fundamental principles, however,

make it useful for gathering objective opinions and

intelligence for a variety of projects (see “What to shop

for,” page 20).

One unique assignment was prompted by responses to a

satisfaction survey sent to families of residents at a nursing

home that suggested the residents had to wait too long for

assistance.The mystery shopper, pretending to be an interior

designer, observed staff members’ responsiveness to

residents’ call bells and requests for help.The objective was

to find the reasons why the residents had to wait too long

for assistance. Be realistic in your expectations

Mystery shopping can be compared to a close-up, instant

snapshot of one or more parts of your organization at specific

points in time. Snapshots don’t always capture us looking

our best, but they do capture the immediacy of the

moment.They’re a slice of life, full of emotion, vitality, and

reality.What mystery shopping does best is take a close-up

look at what visitors who come to your facility encounter

and document each moment.

You should keep in mind that mystery shopping should

not be expected to determine consistency of performance

in a specific area or take a comprehensive look at your

facility as a whole unless it is done often, using a large

volume of mystery shoppers. If you decide to conduct

mystery shopping once or twice a year using a few mystery

shoppers to make calls or visits to each facility, you will

gain valuable feedback on individual performance, but you

will not be able to gauge the consistency of the staff or

facility’s performance. Never approach your first mystery-shopping experience

with the thought that it will be your last. Mystery shopping

is most effective if it is ongoing, or conducted on a periodic

basis, so you can see real patterns of progress. If you only

intend to conduct a mystery-shopping project once, remember

that there are limitations to the comparative or trend

information you can collect.

Decide what, when, and whom to tell

In nearly every case,mystery shopping brings good and bad

news. One question that is always asked is,“Should we tell

the staff they’ll be observed?” Even more importantly,

“Should I tell them what was seen?”

Although every communication decision should be made

on a case-by-case basis, it is frequently suggested that all

employees be told that mystery shoppers will be visiting

their facilities, but not when these visits will take place.

Formally announcing a mystery-shopping project to employees

minimizes breach of trust issues between management

and employees.

To encourage employees to “authorize” the service,mystery

shopping must be presented with a positive focus. It’s

better to emphasize the merits of mystery shopping for

improving systems rather than monitoring people. I also

recommend that the results of the mystery shopping not be

communicated in their entirety to all employees. It’s more

personal and effective to communicate individual findings

to specific employees and departments or to use the findings

to develop future training and mentoring programs.

Choose your mystery shoppers carefully

A good mystery shopper will pass on valuable information

about your facility and how it is meeting the needs of its

customers.Well-trained mystery shoppers will be thorough,

yet anonymous.Their reports will be detailed and compre-

hensive, but, most importantly, objective and insightful.

In choosing a mystery-shopping firm, you should look for

an organization that will respect and protect your facility’s

privacy and its reputation, screens its mystery shoppers for

their skills and reliability, and prepares them with detailed

scenarios and performance criteria. Intelligence, excellent

powers of observation, and the ability to think on your feet

are important qualities for the individual mystery shopper,

as well as a strong sense of ethics and objectivity.You want

a firm that inspires your trust and confidence and that has

experience in your industry.Above all, don’t hesitate to ask

in-depth questions about a firm’s mystery shoppers. In addition

to their background and training, you want to know

about their knowledge of, and expe-rience with, long term

care facilities. You’re depending on the mystery shopper to remain

anonymous, to know what to look for, and to be able to record it as

accurately, objectively, and comprehensively as possible.

Be aware that there may be tradeoffs between the usefulness of the

mystery-shopping firm’s reports and the price of the service.Although the cost of mystery shopping is an important

factor, you don’t want to compromise the reliability of the report

for a lower price since you will undoubtedly base operational and

training decisions on the mysteryshopper

reports. Another question that is frequently asked is, “Should we use volunteers or staff from other facilities to conduct

the mystery shopping?” Similar to internal communications,the decision about whom to use as a mystery shopper should be made on a caseby-case basis. However, there are a few things that need to be carefully considered if you’re thinking about

engaging volunteers or company employees for mystery shopping.

It’s important to recognize the fact that not everyone makes a good

mystery shopper.Whether you decide to use an outside firm, volunteers, or your own employees, the mystery

shoppers should be selected based on the criteria previously mentioned. The mystery shoppers must also feel comfortable playing a role (read: telling a lie) so they can remain anonymous. We often hear that the mystery-shopping project wasn’t successful because the facility or community being shopped knew who the mystery

shoppers were. Decisions must be made about who will manage the

volunteer- or employee-shoppers and whether or how much

the company will pay for their time.The manager will be

responsible for the production of the rating questionnaires,

individual scripts, and scenarios for the mystery shoppers,

and for ensuring that each mystery shopper is committed to

the execution of the project and its timetable.Volunteers

may not be reliable because the mystery shopping is not “a

real job”and they are not being paid for their time. If you do

decide to use volunteers for the project, have a flexible

timetable for the calls and visits. Employees are not always good candidates for mystery shopping Within their own

organization be-cause they may lack objectivity about the company itself. Even when em-ployee mystery shoppers work in a facility or

community across the country, their attitude toward the company,

particular employees, or the concept of mystery shopping itself (or even hidden agendas) can influence their feedback.

Decide in advance how you will use the information

At the end of each mystery-shopping engagement, you should receive a

detailed report complete with an analysis of key findings and specific information about the mystery shoppers’

encounters with systems and staff. This information helps you to

both identify and prioritize staff and areas for future improvement. But for mystery shopping to be truly effective,

it is not enough to review the report. Your organization must develop procedures to process the feedback and take action on the information. Mystery shopping plays an enlightening

role in helping to improve marketing, enhance a facility’s reputation, improve systems, and keep staff on

their toes. Mystery shopping suggests how visitors really feel about their experiences with long term care facilities

and helps administrators learn what systems and procedures arc

not working as well as they should. Successful mystery-shopping projects are realistic in their expectations, well planned, and carefully executed by well-qualified mystery shoppers.