How Can I Tell What my Customers Are Thinking?

Any organisation which aspires to success must constantly evaluate their own performance in order to make those gradual improvements. When it comes to retailers, perhaps the most important measure of performance is customer satisfaction. The proportion of happy shoppers to unhappy ones will correlate very closely to the performance of the retailer – and so special importance should be placed on ensuring that everyone who visits a given store leaves happy.

That said, retailers face a problem of imperfect knowledge. If we don’t know exactly how many of our shoppers are unhappy, and why, then we’ll be unable to make the changes necessary to solve the problem. There are a number of different ways of finding this information. Of these, among the most popular is a mystery shopping agency.

A mystery shopper is a person who anonymously visits your store (or multiple stores) and collects information on them. This allows you to gain a ‘customer’s eye view’ of your retail front-end. You’ll be able to collaborate with the field marketing company in devising the questionnaire that the shopper will fill in, so that you’ll be able to see exactly how many of your own targets you’re meeting.

What’s wrong with a customer satisfaction survey?

One other popular way of measuring a store’s effectiveness is to simply survey the people who visit it. This allows you to gain the perspectives of a far greater volume of people than a mystery shopper, and those people will actually be your real customers. That said, such surveys have a few disadvantages.

Self-selecting sample

The major problem with surveys of this sort is that they’re only filled in by a minority of your customers – and only the sorts of people who will happily volunteer to fill out a survey. Even if you offer a financial incentive to fill out the survey, you’ll still have the problem of self-selection. The views of the people you’ve surveying might not coincide with the views of your customers as a whole.

Lack of specificity

While your customers might be able to tell you about the overall quality of their experience, they might not be able to tell you exactly which factors informed that quality. Consequently, you’ll be ill-prepared to take action to fix the problem.

Despite these drawbacks, a broad survey of this sort can provide useful information. If we use their results with similarly-obtained ones in the past, we can get an idea of improvements (or falls) in performance over time. Moreover, if we spot patterns (like if many respondents complain about the same thing, like a lack of service or excessive queuing times) we’ll have an idea of where to focus the investigation of our mystery shopper.

What can a mystery shopper offer?

A mystery shopper affords us a number of advantages that simply cannot be obtained by other means. Let’s examine a few of them.


With a mystery shopper, we’re able to explain exactly what our key criteria are. So, if we can see that loyalty cards aren’t being used as often as they should, we can find out whether they’re actually being asked for. By asking about specific areas of performance, we can uncover information that might otherwise not be volunteered.


The prospect of a mystery shopper report will provide your staff with a target to work towards. Knowing that they might at any time be talking to a mystery shopper, they’ll have reason to be consistently courteous and helpful. Suffice to say, this pressure will have benefits which go well beyond the mystery shopper report itself. That said, a mystery shopper report should not be used to exert enormous amounts of pressure on frontline staff – as doing so can cause stress which might actually hinder performance.


Since a mystery shopper is outside of the business, they’ll be unencumbered by the bias that might come with being inside. They’ll provide a valuable outside perspective that might uncover problems that those who deal with the shop every day might be blind to. These perspectives might be unobtainable by store management, whose presence will influence staff behaviour – resulting in a customer experience which few of your customers might actually experience.

In conclusion

While mystery shopper reports aren’t a magic bullet that will fix all of your retail woes, they are a valuable tool which, if used in conjunction with other tools, can provide an enormously useful source of information, through which you’ll be able to push your store to new heights.