Debates about morals and ethics in business will probably go on forever, and the area of customer research and customer insights is no exception. On this page we will summarise some of our key thoughts around the morals and ethics of market and customer research and Mystery Shopping specifically.

Market Research Society Regulations

Customerwise complies fully with the regulations of the Market Research Society (MRS) and, in addition, the (voluntary) guidelines for best practice, as well as the rules of the Mystery Shopping Professionals Association (MSPA), of which we’re a full member. These cover areas such as data protection and security, confidentiality, anonymity, and transparency, in relation to all customer and market research activities.

Due to the nature of Mystery Shopping, and as one might expect, there are specific MRS requirements relating to it.

Some of the key requirements are as follows:

  • Mystery Shoppers themselves should be warned of and protected from any adverse implications as a result of their involvement in a Mystery Shopping exercise (for example, if they apply for credit and their credit rating is affected).
  • Employees should be informed by their employer in advance if Mystery Shopping is going to be used to check their service delivery and / or regulatory compliance, along with the objectives and intended uses of the information that is collated.
  • Where employees cannot be informed, Mystery Shopping projects should not involve the collection of personally identifiable data about those employees.

Our Own View: Mystery Shopping in general

Of course, we have no ethical issue with the idea of mystery shopping itself. Here are some of our thoughts in more detail:

Any customer can and will make observations about a business, and if motivated any customer can contact a business owner with their detailed feedback (although the vast majority won’t, however disappointed they are).

Mystery Shopping merely recreates that same process: a “customer” visits or otherwise interacts with your business, and then gives you feedback about their experience and how they were treated.

Of course, it is done in a more focused and purposeful way (the benefits of the method are discussed elsewhere).

The “customer” isn’t indicating that their intention is to produce a report, but of course that’s essential: for a report to be of any use, it must be based on normal operations and behaviour, not “best behaviour”.

The argument that “if you have nothing to hide… (then you shouldn’t mind giving up your privacy)” might be seriously flawed in relation to individuals’ private lives, but it is solid when applied to the workplace, where employees have a duty to perform in their roles and organisations have a duty towards their paying customers, and a right to know what those customers are experiencing while interacting with staff.

The most sensitive of staff might feel that they are “on show” when being “shopped”, but again, they are also on show in the same way when dealing with “real” customers, and any customer can and may write to comment on their experience. So again, in our view, there is no fundamental difference.

An employer has a right to expect that all staff are acting in good faith at all times, and are truly focused on achieving the objectives that have been set for and with them.

In line with the regulations of the Market Research Society, we ask that clients inform staff that they are using, or may use, Mystery Shopping services, to monitor the customer experience and aspects of staff performance.

This in itself is of course likely to raise standards in the short term, but importantly “honesty is the best policy” in terms of staff morale and engagement. In the long term, standards will be raised consistently with a regular programme of mystery shopping including feedback for staff, training, and reward and recognition where appropriate.

Indeed, the best way to increase approval and “buy-in” for a Mystery Shopping programme is to spend time involving your team in the process of setting up the programme; making sure that they understand the benefits to the business and everyone in it, gaining their agreement on what should be measured, and tying in a meaningful recognition and incentive scheme. The ideal scenario is one where there is an atmosphere of competition about who can add most value to the experience of customers.

Our own view: video and audio recorded Mystery Shopping

This area is potentially more “thorny”, and we suggest that employers consider very carefully whether to use video Mystery Shopping, and also how to handle this with employees.

Video recorded Mystery Shopping can certainly provide very clear insight and irrefutable evidence regarding the customer experience and the behaviour of staff, but understandably, staff can be more sensitive regarding its use.

Modern technology means that in today’s world, anybody can potentially be video recorded more or less anywhere, without their knowledge or consent. However, people are still (understandably) uncomfortable about the idea of being video recorded covertly.

Regardless of the legal and moral duty that all employees have to perform to the best of their ability, we believe that secretly video recording people without prior warning is normally a step too far towards being intrusive.

Many people would argue that it is unfair, and if only for that reason, in most cases it would be unwise.

As it happens, the position in employment law is fairly clear. It is unlawful to record employees secretly. Staff must be told that they may be recorded if this is going to be the case. In most cases, if staff are going to be recorded, it makes sense to have this point inserted into employment contracts.

Putting ethics and morals (and the law) aside, Video Mystery Shopping carries a higher risk of damaging trust and staff morale. People are much more likely to feel that it breaks some unwritten “rules of engagement” and that “the bosses” have resorted to “snooping”.

However, reactions like this can be avoided with a pro-active approach to obtain a high degree of buy-in and engagement. This will be dependent on the culture that exists and the strength of the relationships between the owners, management and front line staff.

Video Mystery Shopping can be a very powerful tool, but it carries with it definite risks to staff morale and trust so must be used with caution.

If you’d like to discuss the possibility of a Mystery Shopping programme, to help you to optimise your customer experience, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch by giving us a call on 01392 984224 or contacting us online today.