Tips From a Pro: How to Succeed as a Mystery Shopper

Coyle Hospitality Group—a market leader in designing and implementing mystery shopping programs, quality assurance consulting, and market research services exclusively to hospitality companies worldwide—sat down with one the most seasoned professional evaluators to discuss her best experiences, her distinguishing qualities, and her advice for other shoppers out there. What does it take to shop right? Read on to find out.

Amanda* has been mystery shopping for almost 20 years. She has shopped for over 100 different mystery shopping companies though now, regularly shops for about six or seven companies. Amanda has done all kinds of mystery shops, but she found her niche in hospitality–specifically with hotels, and occasionally with restaurants. She has performed over 500 hotel and restaurant evaluations for various companies, and she currently evaluates four to seven properties each month. Her hospitality mystery shopping assignments have taken her all around the world, from Singapore to Mexico, and France to Thailand. Amanda is an ace, and she is in demand. How did that happen?

Amanda’s favorite evaluations have been in remote locations just off the normal beaten path of her travels. Amanda became a professional mystery shopper for the experiences provided, not for the income boost. Amanda’s mystery shopping jobs have opened her eyes to a world of possibility, and because of these experiences she is able to spot and then quantify the great experiences, letting clients know when truly exceptional service has been delivered.

mystery shopping evaluator tips

How To Identify The Top Mystery Shopping Companies

There are countless mystery shopping companies out there, and not all of them are legitimate. Finding the companies that are right for you can be difficult, especially with the increasing number of mystery shopping scams. Amanda advises that the top mystery shopping companies share three traits:

  1. Excellent communication and support
  2. Industry experience
  3. Individual approaches to each evaluation

Things don’t always go as the client plans. It is important to have a go-to support team from the mystery shopping company.  Amanda would not consider taking a complex hotel, resort or cruise shop without knowing that the mystery shopping company had a solid support system in place, especially since many pf her hotel mystery shopping assignments find her in unusual time zones.

Always seek out mystery shopping companies that specialize or have a long track record in the industry. Many companies offer the occasional hotel or restaurant mystery shop but don’t have a sound understanding of what happens, exposing the evaluator to compromising or awkward situations. There is nothing worse than working really hard on an evaluation and the review form is round holes and the mystery shopping company gave you square pegs.

Amanda also appreciates companies that approach each evaluation as a unique opportunity. She thinks it helps when hotel clients do not have cookie-cutter specifications and provide the evaluator the clarity to blend in and complete the mystery shopping assignment as closely as possible from the typical guest perspective. Says Amanda, “It is easy to see which mystery shopping companies work closely and carefully with the hotel clients, and it pays.”

How to Find the Best Mystery Shopping Companies

Amanda believes that word-of-mouth is the best source for finding legitimate companies. Many shoppers underestimate the power of networking in this field, and it goes a long way in terms of avoiding scams. Talking to other shoppers about their experiences is the best way to know if a company is right for you.

listening mystery shopper

Red flags? If you hear that a mystery shopping company is not paying as promised, or not paying in a timely manner, do not accept a shop from them, no matter how good it looks. Some mystery shopping companies exist on the premise that there are always more shoppers ready to take assignments.  Amanda says it is incredibly important to understand the company’s payment process and be comfortable with it.

Watch out for mystery shopping companies that do not pay a fee in addition to reimbursable expenses, or provide instructions that require the mystery shopper to spend above and beyond reimbursement limits.

Further, trust your instincts, or as Amanda says, “There is no free lunch.” No company will offer a new shopper a $10,000 cruise evaluation; these are offered after you have worked with a company for a while, connected, and found a relationship with mutual benefits. Ultimately, if you are concerned, verify a company’s legitimacy by talking to others who have shopped for them. If the company is small and therefore not readily discussed, ask the company who they can refer you to. If the company is a scam, the signs are there. Never, ever provide a social security number or W-4 to a mystery shopping company…EVER.

How to Distinguish Yourself from Other Shoppers

Amanda has four pieces of advice for shoppers who want to differentiate themselves:

  1. Always do the best you can
  2. Find the best types of shops for you
  3. Choose assignments within those shops that fit your personality
  4. Do your homework

Some evaluators have the mindset that mystery shopping companies do not value their shoppers. These evaluators, both new and experienced, cut corners. Amanda thinks this is the biggest mistake a shopper can make. Her philosophy is to always perform to the best of her ability, and this makes her stand out amongst the rest.  As we can attest here at Coyle, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of fact-checking and editing to know if a mystery shopper was “on” or not.

Amanda does a lot of research ahead of time before she commits to a shop, but even if she later discovers that a shop is not what she thought it would be and thinks it isn’t worth her time, she still does the best possible job for two reasons. First, the client deserves it. Second, it doesn’t help the industry which is what we are all here for.  Also, Amanda states that he has learned from mystery shopping companies that the best way to stand out is to ace the least desirable evaluations, “That can get you on a fast-track really early.”

In regards to the type of shop, Amanda found the best fit for her based on her strengths and weaknesses. She is a great narrative writer and does not find writing tedious; in fact, she enjoys it. For her, the more narrative, the better, which is why hotel shops are perfect. On the other hand, she is not great with technology and could never do a video shop. Likewise, Amanda has a colleague who shops for gas stations, and does 20 in one day. Choose what works with who you are, and be fastidious about scheduling and you cannot go wrong.

After Amanda found her niche–hotel mystery shops–she realized the importance of choosing assignments within that niche that fit her. Her main point is that you can’t evaluate a place you are completely uncomfortable in. For example, if you don’t go to bars or feel uncomfortable around alcohol, don’t take a bar shop. Amanda once took a shop at a hotel that catered to the motorcycle crowd; the experience was unpleasant for her, and she did not fit in. Ultimately, if you do take the wrong assignment, it is not a good time for you, and it is obvious to the client.

What the Mystery Shopping Companies Look for in Long-Term Evaluator Relationships

Amanda has found that there are three qualities that good mystery shopping companies look for in evaluators:

  1. Integrity
  2. Strong work ethic
  3. Commitment to the mission and the client’s best interest.

Amanda’s integrity has put her ahead of the pack. “Honesty and doing your best go hand-in-hand with integrity,” she says. She advises not to game the system.  That means that if you make a mistake, own up to it, and tell the mystery shopping company right away about any problems.  If mystery shopping companies get the sense that you are hiding something or not fully disclosing all the details, you will not be retained again.

In regards to a strong work ethic, it is important to be easy to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.  Some shoppers are hesitant to provide any negative or constructive feedback because it is just easier to say everyyting was great. Put the time in to make sure the employee and client learn all they can.

Finally, you must be committed to the mission and the client’s best interest. If you are there to perform a successful shop, follow the client specifications, and provide the client with the means to improving their operations. The whole system is based on giving the clients feedback they cannot get elsewhere.  If you don’t like the client concept, it will be hard to remove prejudice. Accuracy and objectivity are key..

To join the Coyle referral network, please visit our Evaluator page or contact us online.

*Amanda is not the real name of the interviewee; this name was created to protect the privacy of the evaluator.


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