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Firms hiring 'mystery shoppers' to monitor user experience

Last updated on: June 21, 2006 14:49 IST

'A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.' Yes, Churchill said that about Russia, but it's a good enough definition of a whole new career option that's only now entering India.

Mystery shopping. No, it's not about a murder in the mall, nor is it an Agatha Christie-meets-Paris Hilton kind of thing. It's actually much more Bond: secret agents of a company infiltrate its service point to find out if the company's sales and service standards are being met.

Still can't figure out what the fuss is about? Assume a franchise of your favourite fast food chain is short-changing customers. The company can hire you to enter that outlet as an ordinary customer, and you report your findings to the company.

"These interactions or scenarios are subsequently evaluated, scored, reported and implemented," says Mahesh Punia, director, OmniTouch India.

Retail stores, car companies, airlines. . . almost every organisation that deals with customers needs such feedback. And now, mystery or secret shoppers are fast becoming the corporate world's eyes and ears, and help organisations firm up their internal audit processes.

In most cases, mystery shoppers moonlight for companies like Marico, General Motors, Toyota and Microsoft. But given the growing demand for such shoppers, it's likely to be only a short while before this becomes a lucrative full-time job. Interested? Read on.

The job

It's not all fun and games, buying perfume and eating pizza. As a mystery shopper, you will have to know the company's service standards thoroughly, and figure out exactly where the sales/ service point falls short. Service quality, staff behaviour, efficiency, value for money, decor, hygiene, customer comfort. . . these are just some of what you should be looking at. You then have to record your observations, analyse them, and file a detailed report to your client.

Yes, it's work, but it's generally enjoyable, and it's usually money for jam. Tanya Singh, for instance, has a full-time job at an MNC but mystery shops 'for kicks'. She numbers among her clients a restaurant chain, a department store and a bank. Singh is so pleased with the job that she has approached a service provider asking for a permanent post. "I'll quit my full-time job, if the offer is great," she claims.

It's good news for companies too. Marico's Kaya Skin Clinic gets mystery shoppers to visit its 43 clinics once a month, and depending on the reports of these shoppers, employees either get a bonus or suffer salary cuts. Ram Iyer, head-operations, Kaya Skin Clinic, says that the company has been actively deploying mystery shoppers from the very first month of its operations, way back in 2002.

"We wanted to understand consumer experience at all touchpoints and today, we have identified 256 points as part of our customer brand experience," he says.

The skills

So what does it take to be a good mystery shopper? We asked OmniTouch's Punia for an academic answer. "The skills desired in a mystery shopper are dependent on the objectives of the exercise, nature of business, product and customer profiles," he says. Essentially, since the job involves data gathering, evaluation and report writing, a combination of the skills needed for these three jobs is important.

Ramona Rizvi, an ITES professional who is a mystery shopper with Shaw Consultancy Services, says: "As an auditor, you've got to have an eye for detail, a strong memory and good presentation skills." Rizvi works three hours a day on her mystery shopping assignments and doesn't like to take up more than one such job a day. "It gets too taxing and there are chances of getting confused," she says.

There are also some basic precautions mystery shoppers must take. Like many other Shaw associates, Rizvi changes her credit card numbers at least once a year. And, if she does a hotel audit, she is not sent to the same place for three-four years, or till the front-end staff at the hotel has moved on.

The money

Mumbai-based Bhairavi Sagar, director, Asia of Bare Associates International, claims that mystery shoppers work for her firm on a freelance basis, 'and payments are made 30 days after performing the job.'

Pervin Ghani, principal consultant, Shaw Consultancy Services, has been in the business for a decade now. She deploys 1,350 mystery shoppers for audits across verticals in the country.

She says that on an average, a mystery shopper can earn anything from Rs 5,000-20,000 a month. Associates can get up to Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000) for larger audits. Rizvi's part-time stint with Shaw fetches her Rs 18,000-20,000 per month on hospitality audits alone.

At the other end, there's Singh, who makes a mere Rs 300-500 per assignment. And, she adds, there are other problems with freelancing. At times, work pours in but lean periods can stretch for weeks.

Apart from the cash, mystery shopping has its perks as well. Rizvi, for instance, often jets off to exotic locales on work, courtesy the client. "I get to see several places and work for fun and get paid for it too," she says.

The players

So, how do you land this perfect job? Since companies are not very forthcoming about such jobs, you may have to make a few cold calls. Otherwise, consider signing on with a service provider.

Apart from large companies that recruit mystery shoppers directly, there are several service providers like Shaw, which recruit mystery shoppers and send them to various clients. If you'd rather freelance, remember that you will have to also factor in the time taken to rustle up new clients.

In the world of mystery shoppers, women are more equal than men. There are two distinct classes of mystery shoppers -- those who make the calls and keep tabs on process checks over the wire, and those who specialise in face-to-face interaction on a shop floor or in a mall.

Punia says at the front-end, where shoppers actually go to the shop, there's a 60:40 mix in favour of women. Whatever the reasons for this -- professional or chauvinistic -- it's good news for women who want to make some extra money while having some fun.

Shoppers' names changed on request.

Moinak Mitra,