What shops say about our brands

'Mystery customer' methods reveal important in-store realities

Stephen Hurst

Once a poor relation of 'real' research, the mystery shopper is now a professional assessor, and a key element in important new research techniques for identifying the realities of customer service, even at retail branch level, by independent investigation. Major retailers widely employ such independent assessment to monitor customer service in their own outlets, and even as the basis for staff bonuses. For the marketers of brands, they reveal the truth (sometimes horrific) of how their own and competing products are actually presented in store. Acceptable because they come from a dispassionate third party, the data can then be the basis for realistic new supplier-retailer trading relationships.

Who is really selling our brand? By this I mean, of course, who is selling it, not to our stockists or distributor, but to the end customer? The chances are that the final salesperson will be someone else's employee, with someone else's agenda and someone else's priorities.

Yet we hope that the person is doing his best for our product - recognising the customers' needs that can be met by our product; recommending it in a positive manner; pointing out its features, and turning them into benefits; and then closing the sale to another satisfied customer. Are they?

  • Are they selling off our brand, using its presence in the store to enable them to add value to another, or to own label?
  • Are they being negative about our brand?
  • Can they demonstrate it in action?
Such questions are of considerable importance to brand owners. To find the answers is to begin to understand whether one's sales are coming because of the sales team, or despite them.

A better knowledge of what is going on can open the way to a quite new negotiating approach with retailers, the acceptance of which can allow suppliers to request more than shelf position at an agreed price, more than specified point-of-sale and promotional material. Suppliers can stipulate the active, positive recommendation of their brand in what is often a dreadfully competitive environment, and then put in place the measurement process that ensures that the recommendation is being given and maintained.

Only where there is a measurement process, accepted by both parties in the negotiation, can retailer commitment be ensured. Other elements of the partnership can be policed using traditional techniques: these take care of price and distribution checks, merchandising display analysis and so forth. Indeed, retailers have developed disciplines which ensure that these elements are provided as agreed. But the actions of sales teams can be much more difficult to measure.

Retail managers cannot complete the measurement because staff are likely to modify their behaviour when their managers are present. Likewise, the supplier is unable to complete the measurement as there are unlikely to be enough supplier staff to provide comprehensive coverage.

In any event, is either side likely to accept the other parties' company measurement wholeheartedly when meeting across the negotiating table?


What is required is an independent yet trusted third party to carry out the assessment task. Traditionally such information was collected piecemeal - and from a variety of sources. One most usual method was the so-called `mystery shopper', generally retained ad hoc to resolve retail competitions etc; rarely perceived as gathering factual information, or having any kind of real objectivity.

If mystery shoppers were independent, this was simply because it was expedient for marketers to buy outside help for a particular promotion or enquiry; not because of any demand for objectivity. (At another extreme, market researchers were being enlisted by breweries to provide evidence of the demand for new pubs in new towns.)


This has now changed. My own company, BEM, is in fact a research agency specialising in the evaluation of customer service. A wide range of techniques are used, but one of the commonest is mystery customers. For a time some researchers still looked down their noses at this activity, seeing it as outside the research mainstream.

But recently opinion has shifted: partly because some of the information clients now need can only be collected in this way; partly because of the new professionalism brought to the methodology by companies like ours.

It has become recognised that the more traditional customer satisfaction techniques employed by many organisation have severe limitations. Whilst they have very positive value in tracking levels of satisfaction, they are extremely inflexible in identifying precisely where problems are occurring. Furthermore, the immediate reaction of staff to reduced satisfaction levels within an organisation is frequently that the problem lies somewhere, or with someone, other than themselves. The cost of obtaining reliable, branch-specific satisfaction measurements prevents many organisations from attempting them. Mystery customer research, however, can pinpoint activities on a branch by branch basis. It can provide independent, unbiased and, most importantly, objective information on exactly what happens when customers and staff come in contact with each other.


The inherent strengths of mystery customer research are now recognised by many retailers, who use the techniques to measure the sales, service and operational skills of their branch staff. The results also provide the measurement element of their customer service programme, and these frequently pay significant amounts in incentive rewards, based upon the assessments.

Essentially they use the technique because it works. What gets measured, gets acted upon, and mystery customers are the only effective way of ensuring service levels in a retail environment. But if retailers need mystery customers, so do suppliers.

Retailers tend not to mind too much which product is sold, provided that a sale is made. Hence their research tends to emphasise sales skills in general, rather than evaluation of brand support. But the brand being sold is of vital concern to its owner. To the suppliers, brand manufacturers, knowing which brand is recommended - theirs or a competitor's - is of deadly importance.

It is important to know this information if any attempt is to be made to influence the actions of retail staff. It can be shown using BEM Ambassador whether sales are being achieved despite sales staff or because of them. Some BEM surveys have shown a retail staff's total inability to demonstrate products to the customers. Examples:

Electrical retailer, on being asked to demonstrate a CD, We don't have discs available.

Electrical retailer, on returning to demonstrate a VCR, It is difficult to use - I don't understand it.

Other surveys have shown staff being totally unsupportive of a particular brand. Examples:

Jeweller, about a watch, We don't sell many of those, as they're too expensive.

Chemist, on being asked for a particular brand, These other products have the same ingredients, and are cheaper.

Electrical retailer, on being asked why he hadn't mentioned the client's brand, They just aren't reliable.

Travel agent, when asked about a particular airline, We don't recommend them; they're unsafe.

If any of these were isolated incident, it could be laughed away - although a customer would have been lost. If they were repeated on a regular basis either in a particular retail chain or generally in all outlets then the problem must be addressed.


What every supplier wants from retail sales personnel is Active, Positive, First Recommendations. They cannot of course all have it, but some can - what do these calls to action mean to them? Staff seeking to assist, not having to be dragged into conversation Positive Staff being totally supportive of the brand, and able to demonstrate a full knowledge of its features and benefits, let alone its mode of operation. Because the first brand recommended should be seen by the customer as the most suitable for their needs (who wants second best?). `APFR' provides the best opportunity to achieve a sale. APFR is not the only thing needed of course. One's brand still has to be the right one for the customer. But with the active support of the sales team, it can be much more at the forefront.

BEM Ambassador data are often a valuable additional negotiating tool. They will not tell the supplier why sales teams are saying what they do, but they will recall what they are saying. The supplier can begin to influence the retailer to modify staff performance. That influence may be through training, better point-of-sale, promotion or incentives. It may even require a better margin for the retailer, but that can be offered in return for improved performance: eg `We achieve 20 per cent APFR at present, raise that to 80 per cent and the margin will improve'.


An example of the value of such data was provided in a recent survey of travel agents. A sample of 136 multiple and independent retail agents in the Heathrow/Gatwick catchment area, was visited by our assessor who presented a simple request `can you give me some fares from London to New York?' On being given a series of fare quotations the assessors then sought a recommendation from the agents:

  • Air India achieved 7 per cent APFR
  • BA achieved 8 per cent APFR
  • Virgin achieved 17 per cent APFR, more than twice the rate of any other airlines.
What should be of more concern to BA, perhaps, was the revelation that a quarter of all agents failed to mention them as a transatlantic carrier, a particular prevalent trait amongst the independent and miniples. Overall, more than twice as many agents recommend Virgin (57 per cent) as did BA (24 per cent), with Air India receiving a further 12 per cent of agents' recommendations. The reasons given for airline were clear: Virgin for entertainment, BA for reputation and service or Air India for price.

Yet the degree of support given to each airline varied enormously between the agency chains. Although all were more likely to recommend Virgin than BA, one chain in particular (Lunn Poly) provided almost universal recommendation for Virgin.

Now, the actions to be taken by the purchasers of such independent data as ours could be very different, depending on the recipient.

Virgin might use the information to encourage other agents to behave in the same way as Lunn Poly. They might consider the development of a training package emphasising the value of their service as opposed to the price of others.

BA might use the information to remind some agency chains of their existence, perhaps using it in conjunction with the latest media campaigns to persuade agents that not all their customers are just seeking alternatives to BA.

Air India may be content to sit on their laurels. Or perhaps they would like to demonstrate that the 100 per cent mention they achieved with one agency chain has resulted in significant increased business for both partners, and thereby negotiate the same level of exposure in other multiples.

As a further point, at least one agency chain could use the information gently to remind their counter staff to find out which airlines do fly to New York. The BEM Ambassador assessors were given wholly incorrect information on several occasions.

BEM Ambassador was launched in 1993 to help suppliers to learn objectively how well their brands are being supported in the retail trade. Its success lies in the development of realistic research scenarios. These enable retail staff to demonstrate their skills; use trained assessors, who can recall accurately what staff do and say in response to their questions; and produce actionable reports, which allow management to alter their negotiation, sales or marketing inputs.


Stephen Hurst

Stephen Hurst

Stephen Hurst (43) began his research career with Nielsen. He then joined Business & Economic Planning, a consultancy in tourism and development acting for the World Bank and UN. In 1978 he became marketing services manager for Cussons, then moving to AGB where for some time he ran its retail services division. After a spell with Maritz, in 1990 he went to BEM Ltd, where he is presently sales and marketing director. BEM is the only research house engaged solely in customer service evaluation.