Take a tip from the retail game and mystery shop.

Once upon a time, I worked at The Body Shop. The Body Shop is that green store with the prime location at your local mall. They sell perfume oils and lavender body scrub and lip gloss that tastes like mangos. I love The Body Shop products, and I was excited to learn the retail game. So, I got a job there.

It was fun! The sales presentation was to get customers to try the lotions and potions. It worked - the smell and feel of sesame body butter sells itself.

Interestingly, no one came in the day after the sale and accused me of ripping them off. The same people who cry foul at a middle-of-the-night drain cleaning charge will drop $250 on nut oil massage products without blinking an eye.

The Body Shop had an intensive orientation program. New hires learned all about the Trade Not Aid program that delivered the cocoa butter hair conditioner. We learned how to apply mascara to a customer without blinding them. And, we learned that at least once a month - as often as once a week - we would be “mystery shopped.”

Mystery shopping is a technique for testing customer service. Here is how it works:

A professional shopper will stop by the store and - shop. She (or he) will be incognito, looking like any other shopper. The mystery shopper will submit a written report on her experience. She will indicate if she was greeted with a smile, or ignored. She will report that you offered the accessory item, or neglected to mention the matching bath salts.

A mystery shopper may return an item, to test how well the staff responds. A good mystery shop report is essential for your career in retail. Rewards for good performance include a pat on the back, a certificate or a cash or product prize.

As a retail salesperson, I wondered every time I approached a customer, “Is this a mystery shopper?” It impacted my behavior in a positive way. I like serving people and I am a friendly gal. However, I also like being recognized for a job well done.

Mystery shopping is a powerful, positive tool. It can help business owners address customer service challenges, improve training programs and ensure the team is paying attention.

As a small-shop owner, do you have any idea how your plumber is behaving, home alone with Mrs. Fernwicky?

Scary, isn't it?

Points Of Personal Contact

In our industry, there are two main points of contact with our customers: The person who answers the phone, and the plumber who knocks on the door.

Mystery shopping the customer service representatives is a no-brainer. Have you seen the TV ad for the birth control patch? The actress says, “It's easy to remember to take the pill every day. It's just so easy to forget!” It is easy to answer the phone with the approved company greeting every day. It's just so easy not to.

It's easy to get sloppy with the greeting, to shorten it, to customize it, to abandon it altogether when it gets busy. It is essential to get this point of personal contact absolutely handled at your company. Mrs. Fernwicky deserves the very best reception when she calls. It is of no concern to her that your phones are busy, or the last caller was verbally abusive.

Below is a sample report card you can use to assess your customer service representatives.

Now, mystery shopping your plumbers takes a bit more effort. For retailers like The Body Shop, it is pretty simple to send a professional shopper to the store. You would need to arrange an in-home service call set-up.

Home Grown Or Go With The Pro?

You could make an arrangement with a friend who owns another type of home service company. If you have a pal who owns a lawn care company, you could offer to mystery shop each other's employees.

Put together a checklist to help standardize performance assessments. Do you have certain policies that you hold sacred? For instance, is it required that your plumbers identify the main water shut-off valve for each of your customers? Be sure to list the things that matter most to you.

Once you mystery shop one of your plumbers, he is sure to communicate the 10-20 of the mystery shop home to the rest of the team. So, you would have to move the mystery shop location around a bit.

If you are comfortable doing it, Radio Shack has what you need to equip the mystery shop homes with video recording equipment. Those little round cameras are not expensive and are easy to install for someone like you.

Does videotaping employees make you queasy? That's OK. This step is optional, and not for the faint of heart.

At what point does it make sense to use a professional service? According to Linda Prayer of National Shopping Service, “A professional service will give you more objective results.” Also, hiring a professional mystery shopping service makes sure that you actually follow through on the program.

Ms. Prayer explained that they can provide video and audio clips of the mystery shop within 48 hours, via e-mail. They also work with you to craft a customized scorecard for the plumbers and customer service reps.

You can also request mystery shops of your competitor. You can record the calls and service visits, only if National Shopping Service keeps the identity of the company private. (Hmmm, I wonder if they blur the faces like they do on “Cops”?) Or you can get a written report on your identified competitors.

Professional mystery shopping may not be cost-effective for a small shop. Volume packages are available starting at 50 mystery shops per month, and can bring the cost to $30 per in-home mystery shop and $12 per phone survey. Perhaps you can contract with your trade association to put together a package.

Check out National Shopping Service at www.nationalshoppingservice.com. Or call 800/800-2704 and ask for Linda Prayer. She is nice and super helpful.

Basic Mystery Shopping Guidelines

Plan your mystery shopping program before you launch it. Announce the program to your team and explain the procedures in detail.

You can't record a mystery shop without your employees consent, so put the mystery shop policy in your employee manual. (Of course, you are best served by checking with a local employment law expert.)

Expect some pushback. “You don't trust me,” is the underlying concern. Do your best to explain that the consequences of one bad apple in your company are just too great to not put a formal assessment system in place to protect your customers.

Also, you should approach mystery shopping as a way to help your team improve its performance. If you are serious about creating excellence in your company, this can be a transformational tool.

Make a game of it, and reward good performance generously.

But, here's the rub.

You are not going to do it. You are not going to mystery shop anyone at your company because you are too afraid of what you would discover.

You won't even ride along with your plumbers to assess their performance. You know that they will be on their best behavior because you are along, and you are still chicken. Mystery shopping is way out of your league. That's what I think.

No? Going to prove me wrong? Great. Give me a call when you do. I'll write an article about your brave adventure.