Friday, July 25, 2008

Got the job? Terrific! Now what?

Paperwork, of course! The assigning Mystery Shopping Company will direct you a web page containing specific instructions for your shop, and probably tools like printable note taking forms and surveys. This is how you will know exactly what measurements and timings to take, what to look for, ask, and do on a shop. Read this information carefully as soon as you have access to it. Sometimes errors are made, for example: women are sent on jobs requiring an inspection of the men’s restroom or dressing room, or a man is assigned a job during which he must try on three maternity items! If you find something about your assignment that doesn’t look right, contact your scheduler before the shop. Don’t wait until the last minute, please.

When you first accept jobs or you are working for a company you have little experience with, pull out their Independent Contractor’s Agreement you signed when you applied. Make sure you know how long it will be until you are paid, what will disqualify your shop, how you will submit your receipts for reimbursement and enter your survey data. Don’t go on your shop until you know all these things and are comfortable with them.

You’ll need to make a note of the date and time of your shop on a calendar you carry, on your computer, on your cell phone’s calendar, a calendar which hangs on your refrigerator, somewhere. If you have a busy life or tend to be forgetful, many computer program calendars include alarms that can be set to remind you of upcoming appointments.

Personally, I print out the information I need from the company’s website then enter the information in my computer’s calendar system. I assign each job a reference number for my own use and add the following information into my master database:

Mystery Shopping Company
Assignment # (provided by the company)
Assignment Start (some assignments can be done during a range of dates, this would be the first possible date the job can be done)
Assignment End (the last possible date the job can be done)
Shop Date (the actual date I plan to do the shop)
Location Name (store name)
Store # (the identifying number provided by the company to the Mystery Shopping Company)
Mall or Shopping Center Name
Address of the shop including City, State and Zip
Phone number of the store (in case I need it for directions or to confirm their hours)
Special Instructions (Is a purchase required? During what hours must the shop be completed, etc.)
Shop Fee (what I get paid for doing the shop)
Reimbursement Amount (how much the Mystery Shopping Company will reimburse of any required purchases I make)

I print out a map to the location with the help of Mapquest or Googlemaps and check it carefully with my common sense and what I know of the area. Immediately upon accepting the appointment, call and confirm the location and hours. Again, 99.9% of the time your assigned dates and times will be right, but there is always the odd job out. I’ve had two different assignments at stores that were closed for renovation. A call back to your scheduler in the case of error will be greatly appreciated.

Now that I have all the information in my hand, I grab a manila file folder to keep it in. On the tab I write my reference number, the MS Company, store name, date and time of the shop. I keep these in a file drawer next to my computer. Shops I have yet to complete are filed in date order, with the next shop that needs to be done right in front. Each night before bed, I grab the next day’s folders, give them a quick read-through, gather any instruments or devices I need for the shops and put it all together by my purse.

Now, I get a good night’s sleep and I’m off and running!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Get a Job

You’re all signed up and ready to work! Now it’s time to go get an assignment.

The companies I work for generally use four methods of letting me know there are jobs to be done:

1) Here’s a list Some companies email me a list every morning of all open assignments in my area. I can take a quick look down the list and determine if there is something I’d like to do, then go to the website and apply for each job individually.

2) Here’s an opportunity Other companies email me each and every assignment they post as it is being posted. If I’m fast on the mouse, sometimes I can win the race to the company’s page to get the assignment.

3) Here’s a message One or two of the companies I work for will put all their job opportunities in a message box on their website and send me an email letting me know when a message has been added to the message box.

4) Do-it-yourself The vast majority of companies I work for have search engines on their site for finding jobs. This requires me to log in to each site, enter my search area, wait for the results and then read descriptions and choose jobs that interest me.

Most companies will use one or any combination of these four methods. I tend to work more jobs for the companies that use the first method of assigning jobs because it is most convenient for me. But near the end of the month when last minute jobs bearing bonuses are common, I will use the do-it-yourself method daily and glean a few more high-paying jobs.

Please remember that most companies that send out jobs or messages send them out to everyone in their shopper database who qualifies to perform a certain job. Anywhere from two to two hundred people could be seeing the same message you are, and schedulers do not take kindly to being asked, “Why didn’t I get this job?”

Companies use a term you need to be aware of: Self-assign. If you personally meet certain criteria, you will be able to assign yourself jobs from the company website. If you do not meet these criteria, or if the job or company does not offer self-assign on this particular opportunity, you will need to “apply” for the job along with all other interested shoppers and the company will let you know if you have won the assignment. The criteria vary widely from company to company and even assignment to assignment, and few companies will share with the shopper the method they use for determining who may self-assign which jobs.

The Do-it-yourself method can be very time-consuming and frustrating, but you will get to know the market very well visiting company websites on a regular basis. There are companies who specialize in certain assignments, others who restrict themselves to certain parts of the country, or even parts of certain cities. There are tools that make the process a bit easier, we'll explore some in a future post.

There is one more method some companies will use when time is short, or a shopper suddenly cancels an important job: the phone call. I have a cell phone I use only for my business calls. Because it isn’t used for personal use I can claim the minutes as a business expense for tax purposes. My children don’t answer this phone and when I do, it is with my best business manners. This is the phone number I have listed with shopping companies. I know when that phone rings that it is opportunity knocking and I’d better have my calendar in hand. A very small percentage of companies I work for will use this method exclusively. For the most part, those that do also require the results of shops to be phoned-in.

Now that you've chosen a job, let's prepare to go. No, we can't go yet, remember, there's still before-the-job paperwork to be done?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Time to Apply Yourself

Ready to dip your toe into the mystery shopping pool? Let’s fill out an application!

The worst way to find mystery shopping companies is to run an internet search. You’ll come up with more scams than bona fide companies that way. And because entering your Social Security Number is a required part of most forms, filling out applications at just any old shopping company is painting a target on your back and carrying a sign, “Steal my identity, please!”

The best way to find mystery shopping companies is to talk to other shoppers. That can be tricky, as most of us don’t like having our faces identified with our occupation. There are some good websites, though, where shoppers can anonymously post our favorite companies, complaints and scam discoveries on public forums. The two best sources for this information are:



There are many smaller forums. I find it to be very helpful to be part of a community. At first I joined several of these smaller forums and one by one dropped those that didn’t meet my needs.

When you go to browse the MSPA site,you’ll see something called certification. There are classes a shopper can take, then a test for a certificate which might (or not) give them access to better jobs. But that’s a step that can wait a bit until you’re sure this is something you wish to pursue.

Okay, so I found a site for which I haven’t applied before. I click on “Apply to be a Shopper” where I am taken to an application page. In addition to the normal name, address, phone number and SSN stuff, they ask about my available hours, if I have special military or airline privileges, and if I would submit to a background check. There is a short essay question: What qualities do you possess that would make you a good mystery shopper? I have applied at over 100 companies, and most of them ask some kind of essay question, more to get a feel for the applicant’s language skills than the answer itself. I have a document on my computer that has essay answers for several of these questions. It’s easier for me to edit, copy and paste than to write fresh essays for each company.

At the end of the application is a Shopper Agreement. I print and file a hard copy of these alphabetically by company name. I also read it very carefully to make sure I am able to abide by each and every point before I check the box that I agree. You should read these agreements carefully. You will discover that companies outline very clearly the requirements of the shopper and shopping company. You’ll save yourself headaches, time and embarrassment to know precisely what is in your contract with each company.

A few hours later, I get an email that my application has been accepted. I am issued a username and password for the company website which I note on a master list I keep. I also note the date I applied, for future reference. I make a file folder with the company name to hold my shopper agreement hard copy and file it away. If I was not accepted, I’d shred the agreement and make a note on my master list that I was declined for that agency so I don’t inadvertently apply again.

That’s the whole process. Next time, choosing jobs at the company website.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Considerations Part Two: Betcha didn't think about that!

As you progress through your mystery shopping life, gathering experience and learning, you will come upon some surprising "aha!" moments. (We old-folks call them "epiphanies." It's a $10 word—look it up!)

Here are some of mine:

Internet maps are not infallible. I mapped an address for a shop, but it didn't look right to me. I called the establishment and sure enough, both Mapquest and Google Maps had me more than 20 miles off the mark. If you are going somewhere and you aren't 100% sure of where it is, don't just search an internet map, call and get a cross-street!

Dining out carries risks. In addition the the larger-pant-size risk that frequent dining shops carry, there is another danger: food-borne disease. After approximately 20% (that's one in five) of food shops I perform, I am stricken with a case of food poisoning that lasts about three days. And don't assume you can feel safe by avoiding fast food shops: my worst case so far was after an upscale dining assignment. If your immune system or digestive tracts are weak, you might need to steer clear of jobs requiring prepared food consumption.

Complacency is income-threatening. I have one batch of shops I perform very frequently. After filling out the form two dozen times, I figured I knew the requirements like the back of my hand. I didn't review my shop form beforehand, did the shop and didn't discover until I was at home filing my report that I had completely missed a newly-added shop point. Lucky for me, it was a point I could drive past the location and answer, because the shop had been closed for several hours by the time I discovered my error, and the shop was due NOW, not tomorrow. The scheduler cut me slack and allowed the correction even though it was performed separately from the shop, but that's the kind of dumb mistake that often results in not getting paid. I learned my lesson: read every shop form every time.

Procrastination is bad juju. In another "stupid" moment, I accepted an assignment that was a week away. I was in a hurry and didn't print out and review my shop right away, as is my habit, but jotted down the assigning company and date of the shop on the scratch pad by the phone. When I uncovered the hastily-written note three days later and printed out the required materials from the website, I learned that there was a pre-shop phone call which had to be made five days in advance. I had missed the deadline by hours. Very few things are more embarrassing than calling a scheduler and 'fessing up to bonehead moves like that. I hope I never, ever have to do that again, but I learned: do the whole prep immediately, don't put anything off!

Editors are people, too. My husband is also registered shopper, and has performed a handful of shops in his interest areas. But his 9-5 involves editing written work for a publishing company. He is degreed in journalism and, um, shall we say, knows English rather well? He is also a perfectionist, and a 10-question survey with a 200-word narration can take him an hour to complete because he edits himself so completely. When he received an 8/10 grade based on "poor word choices and inconsistent grammar," he nearly hit the roof. But hey, that editor probably has a background in shopping, not editing, so he cut her a huge chunk of grace and didn't fire off a nasty email to her boss. Wise move. Angering editors and schedulers at shopping companies will put a very quick end to your shopping career. Word gets around if you're a "flake" (a shopper who cancels assignments) a "texter" (using internet-speak, chat-speak or text-speak on survey forms) or a "nag" (writing schedulers repeatedly asking, "Did I get the job? Why didn't I get the job? and other annoying issues) and your job market will shrink.

I hope you'll join me next Friday as I take you with me to apply at a mystery shopping company.