The next time you're making a deposit at the bank, ordering a hamburger at a fast-food joint or checking into a hotel, the person standing behind you in line may not be a regular customer. He may be a mystery shopper. Mystery shoppers, who work on a contract basis, secretly evaluate consumer-service companies by posing as ordinary customers.
Mystery shoppers work their own schedule, typically going on as many assignments as they choose in a day. That flexibility combined with the perk that they often get to enjoy the goods and services they're told to purchase for free may make this seem like an ideal occupation. But, like any other field, this line of work has its disadvantages, not the least of which is the time and effort needed to excel and earn decent wages.
Companies hire mystery shoppers, usually through an agency, to get unbiased opinions about their products or services. Although the work can be fun, the mystery shopper's ultimate goal is serious: To provide the company with valuable feedback it can use to better its business.
“The misconception about mystery shopping is that it is just a way of getting paid to get free stuff,” says Ray Sola, owner of Volition.com, a resource site for mystery shoppers. “It is a lot of work, and it takes time to get good at it and to make decent money doing it.”
Evaluating a hotel, for instance, means staying overnight and checking out every department open to the public, taking pictures, taking notes, watching and listening to employees, and reporting your findings. The agency that hires you to do the mystery shopping should provide guidelines concerning what you're supposed to examine as well as with a specific questionnaire for you to fill out. You may be able to answer some questions with a yes or no, but others will require you to provide specific descriptions of your experiences.
It's important to select a good mystery-shopping agency to work for. Companies that require you to send a startup fee are usually not legitimate. Safeguard yourself by reviewing the companies approved by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA).
Apply to as many valid companies as you can and keep in touch with them to increase your odds of getting regular work. Each company will require you to sign a confidentiality contract that prohibits you from disclosing details about the inner workings of the businesses you're evaluating. Establish yourself as a trusted contract worker by honoring such agreements. Some companies also conduct background checks for criminal charges and convictions.
While experience may not be necessary, MSPA President Mike Green says the following skills are prerequisites to working as a mystery shopper:
- Self-Motivation: You are ultimately responsible for managing your time and seeking opportunities. “Mystery shoppers must have a good work ethic, especially in order to benefit financially,” says Green, who notes the average pay for a fast-food restaurant or bank audit is only about $10 to $12. And like many other types of contract work, generally no benefits (insurance, etc.) are offered. Therefore, physical stamina and determination to complete several assignments in one day is essential.
- A Keen Eye: The best mystery shoppers notice the fine points of a product or service. You should be able to report details the client may not have noticed or considered. For example, if you notice it takes too long to pay for your food at a fast-food counter simply because a worker must take several extra steps to get to the cash register, alerting your client to this may ultimately help it streamline the operation.
- Good, Clear Writing Skills: Excellent skills in this area are a must. Some mystery-shopping companies will require you to submit writing samples before you are hired.
- Being Computer-Savvy: A familiarity with a standard word-processing program is especially important for writing and submitting your reports.
- Familiarity with Customer Concerns: You should be able to differentiate good service from mediocre and bad service. “Mystery shoppers have to have an innate understanding of customer service,” Green says.