Friday, August 29, 2008

Helpful Tech

One of the mystery shopping companies I work for has offered a cell phone package at a discount. They will eventually make it possible for shoppers to enter their information online from their cell phones right to the company site while the shop is being done. It's a very cool idea, and if you need a cell phone and plan on the high end, it could be worth the asking price. But, chances are you already have a cell phone on a good enough plan for now.

Because the payment process for mystery shopping is not an immediate process, (remember it took almost three months for me to show a profit?) you probably won't want to invest in a lot of tools right off. Most shops can be completed without most of these tools anyway. In no particular order, here are some of the tools I use most regularly.

Cell Phone I like having a separate phone just for business calls. I can keep track of minutes on that phone to report as a business expense and I can be sure that phone is always answered in a business-like fashion, which is important having teens in the house who like to answer the phone, "Moon Pizza, your pie-in-the-sky." My cell phone has built in tools like a calendar and stopwatch. I use the calendar, and set an audible alarm for shops so if I get distracted I have time to get back on track and be punctual for my assignments. I use the stopwatch function on almost every shop. Most assignments will require at least one timing, and a cell phone is a much more natural item to be seen holding than a stopwatch. You will want to be careful though, it is very bad form to use a cell phone during a shop as it might keep the employees from interacting with you.

Stopwatch There is one batch of shops I perform that require a stopwatch and specify that a cell phone stopwatch is not an acceptable form of capturing timings. The mystery shopping company provided an inexpensive stopwatch for me for this batch of shops. I like that a stopwatch can be easily concealed in my hand during a shop. But be sure the "beep" is turned off, though, or you'll give yourself away!

Scales and Thermometers The shop that requires a stopwatch also requires two thermometers and a scale. The instructions for calibrating them are on the company's website, and it is very important you calibrate your equipment faithfully. The company requiring the use of these tools provided them to me at a lower cost than I could have purchased them, thank you!

Digital Voice Recorder I've touched on the use of a DVR in previous posts. I love my recorder for leaving myself notes about shops. Recording conversations is legal in most states, but you need to check carefully before investing. There are also some venues at which recordings are absolutely forbidden, like movie theaters. Be careful who can hear you when you use it, too. If you need to hold the recorder, consider purchasing the model that looks like a cell phone. Much more valuable to me, though, is a lapel mike and clip. I can conceal the recorder, lapel mike and cord under my clothing and get very accurate recordings without being discovered. I don't like to rely on technology 100%, so I use my recorder as a way to back up my memory instead of providing all the data for my shops.

Assignment Spreadsheet I was well on my way to writing an Excel spreadsheet that would hold all the necessary information I would need to keep track of my business when I stumbled upon The Mystery Shopping Bible. It has an amazing assortment of worksheets, all tied together with macros that move information around and create all the forms and data you need for your business. It is a valuable tool, very reasonably priced. It is automatic and easy to use, even for beginners. If you're an old pro at Excel and can modify macros, the bits and pieces that are outdated and in need of a bit of sharpening up will be an easy fix for you. The author of the spreadsheet is a shopper herself and very familiar with all the bits and pieces that need tracking. The company list with clickable links to their websites is worth the purchase price alone.

Computer and its friends Of course, you'll need a computer. All the companies I deal with except one require the end-of-assignment surveys to be answered online. A fast, reliable internet connection will save you headaches and frustration. An email program is essential as this is the most favored method of communication between company and shopper. You'll need access to a printer for printing out tip sheets—the page of required information you'll need to gather on a shop. A scanner is a huge plus, as most shops require your receipt to be scanned or photographed and sent digitally to the mystery shopping company. A digital camera is needed for some jobs, but not a great quantity of jobs. Photographing a receipt to send with your report can produce varied results, scanning produces a much more readable file. If you keep financial information on your computer, please back it up at least monthly. One computer crash could require days of reconstruction work at tax-time. And know where the closest business is where you can send and receive a fax, unless you own a fax machine. If your computer connection goes down and you are under deadline, some companies will ask you to fax your report rather than miss the deadline entirely.

Do remember to keep on file every dollar you spend on tools for your business and review them with your tax preparer.

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