Selected Article
Title Two Overlooked Tools for Gauging Customer Perceptions
Date Published 01/15/2004
Author Craig Cochran
Publication Quality Digest (March 2004 publication scheduled)

Two Overlooked Tools for Gauging Customer Perceptions

© Copyright 2004 Craig Cochran

1. Author name: Craig Cochran

2. Author's organization: Georgia Institute of Technology, Center for International Standards and Quality

3. Address, telephone numbers, and e-mail: 4705 Norman Dr NW, Kennesaw GA 30144-1318. Telephone: 678-494-9938 or 404-894-0968. Email: [email protected]

4. Article length: about 2,500 words.

5. Biographical sketch: included after article text below.

The ISO 9001:2000 standard introduced customer satisfaction to the QMS lexicon in December, 2000. That was over three years ago, but when people hear customer satisfaction they still think “surveys.” This mental association between customer satisfaction and surveys is understandable, yet unfortunate. There are many more methods for capturing customer perceptions than just surveys. Two lesser-known methods I’ve been thinking about lately are focus groups and something I’ll call undercover customers. Let’s take a look at both of these and see how they might be used to drive organizational improvement.

Undercover Customers

One of the most revealing ways to learn about customer satisfaction is to experience being a customer first hand. You can always speculate what the customer experience is like, but until you’ve been on the receiving end of your own goods or services you really don’t know. That’s the underlying theory behind the “undercover customer” concept: Go undercover and find out what it’s like to be a customer. This method also goes by the name mystery shopper.

This technique—also known as “mystery shopping”—is used widely in consumer industries such as retail, restaurants, hotels, mail order businesses, and car dealerships. The concept is that someone impersonates a customer on behalf of the organization, paying close attention to the quality of the product. The so-called customer could be an employee of the organization or someone who is hired by the customer for this sole purpose. In either case, it’s important that the people within the organization not realize how and when the undercover customer will emerge. The point is to truly experience the transaction in the same way a normal customer would.

What sorts of attributes might be examined? Here are some of the more typical variables:

· Timeliness of service

· Accuracy of information received

· Courtesy of personnel

· Efficiency of the fulfillment process

· Aggressiveness of sales personnel

· Conformity of the final product

· Adherence to organizational policies

There is no doubt that this method can deliver valuable information about the customer experience. This is the only method I’m aware of that produces customer perceptions on a first hand basis. All other methods filter the customer encounter on a second or third hand basis. With undercover customers, you actually see, hear, smell, touch, and live the experience, which provides pure, unadulterated information.

The organization walks a fine line with this type of method, however. The undercover customer concept can seem to be a “big brother” type of tool, with the only purpose to put employees under a magnifying glass. This can destroy morale, motivation, and the ability to retain employees. Clearly, the emphasis must be the system, processes, and procedures in the organization. Employees can’t perceive that they are being persecuted. Everyone must understand that the undercover customer process is about learning to become better at serving customer, not about trying to get people in trouble.

Some states even require that undercover customers act under the supervision of a licensed private investigator. Nevada is an example of a state that requires this. Statutes of this only reinforce the idea that this method is solely for performing surveillance on employees, which we’ve already established should not be the case. It would be worth examining the laws in your state before implementing an undercover customer process.

A number of companies specialize in providing undercover customer services to companies. One of the more prominent is Mystique Shopper in Uniondale, New York ( I spoke to their founder and President, John Saccheri, about the concept. Mr. Saccheri stated that the mystery shopping concept delivers two basic results:

1) Reveal patterns that reflect on the effectiveness of the organization’s processes.

2) Enforce a certain level of discipline among personnel. When the boss is around, everyone is on their best behavior. When the mystery shopper is enlisted, the boss is always around.

Mr. Saccheri emphasized that the organization must analyze the trends and not take action on isolated incidents. “When problems occur, they are often system problems as opposed to people problems. Address the system, and people issues usually go away,” My Saccheri said. “Of course, it is occasionally the case when the problem is a person, and mystery shopping will reveal this fact.”

The findings of the undercover customer are often positive, Mr. Saccheri continued. It is a learning experience, and there are many opportunities to recognize people for good performances. “When the process is presented in a positive light,” Mr. Saccheri said, “employees seem to enjoy and embrace the undercover customer concept. The trick is in the way management uses the results. As with any tool, this can backfire if it’s used incorrectly.”

It is possible for organizations to adopt the undercover customer concept without any outside assistance. The approach would seem simple enough: simply use employees as the undercover customer. This method brings with it some special challenges, though. Here are a few of the potential problems:

ü Employees can be recognized: They won’t be truly undercover. The employees who are serving them will recognize the undercover customers and this will affect their behavior. This isn’t the circumstance in all cases, but it would be serious consideration.

ü Employees know how everything works: the employees are more likely to work within the known constraints of the company, taking into consideration weaknesses and obstacles. They’re not likely to make the same mistakes as real customers.

ü Employees have a hard time being objective: As employees, they already know who they like, who they don’t like, the problems of the organization, etc. Politics are rampant. Third parties are more likely to approach the task in a more balanced, neutral manner.

The organization must design a tool for capturing “undercover customer” perceptions. The tool can include open-ended questions (what did you like? What did you dislike?), closed ended questions (were you served within fifteen minutes?), scaled questions (please rate courtesy of your salesperson on a scale from one to five), or some mix of all of these. Clearly, the design of the tool has its own challenges. As with so many other customer perception methods, it makes sense to start simple (i.e., start with open ended questions and basic closed ended questions), then move onto more sophisticated ratings methodologies after the process matures.

Focus Groups

A focus group brings together a small group of people (usually less than ten) to explore perceptions about a particular good, service, policy, or idea. The whole point is to “focus” on a fairly short list of issues and explore them in detail. A facilitator is present to keep the group’s discussions moving in the right direction and to ensure recording of the details. The information garnered from the focus is typically qualitative: threads of subjective observations about the issue being probed.

The power of a focus group lies in its ability to leverage multiple channels of communication and thought. This is similar to a brainstorming session, which also uses varied chains of thought to drill down and focus on an issue. Since the focus group relies on the interaction of its participants for its success, two planning variables are critical:

1) Use of a skilled facilitator who can manage the dynamics of the group. Anyone who has ever presided over a free-flowing discussion knows how difficult this can be.

2) Selection of participants who are willing and able to interact in a constructive manner. This often means selecting participants with somewhat similar backgrounds and/or demographics. It could be difficult to encourage lively interaction among participants who are uncomfortable being in one another’s company.

In general, certain people should not be asked to participate on the same focus group. These people include bosses and subordinates, people in competition with one another, family members, experts and novices, and those who hold drastically different opinions from the other participants. Keep in mind that participants will not be fully engaged in the focus group if they are intimidated or unduly influenced by the others in the group.

Since the participants are carefully selected, the perceptions that come out of the focus group are not a statistically-valid representation of the population as a whole. This is the opposite of a quantitative survey, which strives for random selection of participants and statistical validity. There’s nothing wrong with non-randomness, as long as decision makers understand it and don’t try to base their decisions on the results of a single focus group. By their very nature, a focus group will represent what a fairly narrow slice of the population thinks about the issue being explored.

Participants are informed ahead of time about the general topic that will be addressed by the group, but not the specific issues. So, instead of saying that the focus group will address potato chips, the participants might be told that it will address snack foods. Or even just food. Why be secretive about specific issues of exploration? Because many participants will perform research on the subject if they know it ahead of time. This is human nature: everyone wants to be as knowledgeable as possible. Unfortunately, it can also influence their thoughts and opinions during the focus group, resulting in flawed information for the researchers.

The line of questioning in a focus group are exploratory, providing plenty of room for participants to stretch out and explore the topic from various angles. Typical lines of questioning include the following:

· What do you like about this product/policy/idea?

· What do you dislike?

· How does it compare to other products/policies/ideas?

· What would you change about it?

The interaction with other participants will branch out these initial thoughts, and each of these questions could easily spawn a number of more detailed discussions. In fact, that’s very desirable. The point is to start in a comfortable, generalized manner that gets participants comfortable with the topic and each other, then drill down and focus on the details. Participants might be surprised by their own thoughts and opinions on a subject, particularly when a skilled moderator encourages the group to dig deeper into the qualities being discussed. The skill of the facilitator becomes critical at this juncture, because a “ten thousand foot rap session” that never produces anything more than generalities won’t benefit anyone. Failure to achieve focus within the group sub-optimizes the resulting information. Picture someone trying to herd a group of noisy, excited geese—that’s what the facilitator is doing.

The results of the focus group are typically captured through electronic recording devices. Audio recorders and/or video cameras are almost essential, especially in recording the exact emotions, opinions, interactions, and hot buttons that arise from the group. Participants quickly forget about the presence of recording devices, and they soon ease into free-flowing discussions. Experienced and skilled facilitators often capture relevant points with a flipchart and marker, but this rarely an actual recording technique. The use of flipcharts and markers helps the facilitator guide the group’s direction in a visual manner everyone can follow. It’s easier for everyone to think about what they’re talking about if they can also see what they’re talking about.

Participating in a lively focus group can consume a considerable amount of energy. For this reason, this isn’t an activity than can go on all day. People just can’t keep up the intensity level, even if they wanted to. Besides, everyone worth inviting to your focus group is already very busy. In general, focus groups run for two hours or less, though they can occasionally run longer. Also, it is quite common for the participants to be compensated in some way for their time and trouble. Meals, cash payments, product samples, souvenirs, and discounts may be used to motivate participation.

When the focus group has completed its work, everyone should be heartily thanked. The facilitator should do a quick review of the information that has been recorded, especially if any recording was performed manually. Memories are short, and the facilitator will not remember what cryptic notes mean a week after the focus group took place. Clarify all the details while the issues are still fresh on your mind. If electronic recording devices are used, make sure to turn them off, secure them, and remove the recording media. Don’t make the fatal mistake of leaving the videotape laying on top of the recorder. If observers were utilized during the focus group, it’s often helpful for them to compare notes and impressions immediately after the focus group has run its course.

Deborah Holden, a manager with The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, is a trained focus group moderator who has led a number of focus groups in her career. For a technical audience, she said that focus groups are primarily engines for generating ideas. “Focus groups are especially good at generating ideas early in the product development cycle, when it is too expensive or too complex to develop multiple prototypes,” Ms. Holden explained. “The ideas that are gathered from the focus group can then be explored further through quantitative techniques before any big decisions are made.”

Ms. Holden also outlined a couple of possible problems with focus groups. “They are not particularly good at getting to the truth with politically correct questions,” she explained. “If participants know the so-called ‘right’ answer, they will probably give it, even though it is not an accurate representation of their thoughts and practices. This often comes up with focus groups that address health, fitness, and nutrition. Few people will reveal the truth on these issues in front of a bunch of strangers.” So, nobody wants to admit to eating a gallon of ice cream every night? Not a surprise.

Finally, Ms. Holden cautioned facilitators to be on the lookout for the lone “expert” that might emerge in a focus group. You most likely won’t even know who this is until the focus group is underway. “It’s been my experience that an expert will try to take over the group,” she said. “The group interaction is harmed as participants become afraid of saying something that the expert might disagree with. In extreme situations, the expert can even be removed from the focus group. A domineering expert simply impedes the natural group dynamics.”


There are innumerable techniques for capturing customer perceptions. The approaches are only limited by your organization’s powers of creativity. Doing a little research into what other companies have done also helps. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a survey is the only valid tool. Call reports, field reports, comment cards, complaint systems, warranty analysis, after order follow-ups, customer hospitality days, focus groups, and undercover customers can all deliver valuable information. Try a method and be prepared to switch gears when necessary. And no matter what methods you use, don’t forget to take action on the results!

Special thanks to John Saccheri, Deborah Holden, Troy Clarida, Ann Barrelle, and Lynn Ann Pall for their assistance with this article.


Craig Cochran is a Project Manager with Georgia Tech’s Economic Development Institute. Craig has an MBA from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. in Industrial Management from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of “The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to The Bottom Line,” and “Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success,” both available from Paton Press (