says he was thoroughly baffled. When he took on leadership of Office Depot’s U.S. stores, he saw sales were declining faster than those for the industry, but customer service scores from the mystery shopper service were top grade. What was going on?
Part of the answer was that the mystery shoppers had been instructed to assess the wrong things. They were told to look at whether the shelves were well-stocked. But when a customer comes to the area of those shelves looking for a product, that customer would much rather have the store associate’s attention turn sharply toward them and away from stocking the shelves. The mystery shoppers were scoring the cleanliness of the windows, floors, and rest rooms. Cleanliness does count with shoppers, but they’re not major drivers of customer satisfaction. Mr. Peters asks, “How often do you go to the bathroom while shopping for office supplies?”
Mr. Peters changed the metrics.
Another, more fundamental, problem with mystery shopper reviews is that they frequently part company with reviews by a store’s target market members—the actual and potential customers. This doesn’t mean the mystery shopper reviews are less accurate. In fact, they can be more accurate if they don’t suffer from a negative bias.
To illustrate this point, here’s another mystery: Why did Howard Johnson’s Restaurants take a spiraling dive into failure starting in the mid-1970’s. The oil embargo of 1974 curtailing the road travel that fueled their business? The loss of a quality image when, in response to the rise of McDonald’s, Howard Johnson’s Restaurants cut back on both staffing and food quality?
At the time, some industry experts posited another reason: Howard Johnson’s Restaurants were placing too much importance on customer review cards filled out by people at the cashier station. What the managers failed to acknowledge was that customer reviews have a negative bias. The anecdotal—perhaps overly cynical—rule of thumb is that a customer most likely to take the time to fill out a review card is somebody so upset that they’re one step short of suing the restaurant. The result is an unrepresentative sample of strong negative opinions.
In a three-nation study, research findings from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stanford University, and Korea University supported the anecdotal wisdom: Overall, there is indeed a negative bias in customer reviews of services.
Take account of possible biases to interpret mystery shopper reviews.
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Reduce Bias in Customer Reviews of Services
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