Friday, January 30, 2009

Serious Stuff

If you stick with mystery shopping long enough, one day it will happen. It's disconcerting at best, downright dangerous at worst, and leaves you with a seriously uncomfortable feeling. It could be two employees roughhousing next to the fryer. Perhaps you see a supervisor shove an employee or use foul or demeaning language. Maybe you catch sight of a cashier's hand going from till to pocket. Or worse.

Most undercover assignments come with very clear instructions about not identifying yourself—ever. But what about when the serious stuff happens right there in front of you? How will you handle yourself and the situation?

First, let's think through some scenarios. If there is a serious danger to life or limb and you feel action must be taken, take it. You don't need to identify yourself as a mystery shopper to alert the manager to an unsafe condition or action. It's a good idea to keep the phone number of the assigning mystery shopping company somewhere close by. If it's during business hours, you can excuse yourself to your car, call the company and explain what happened. They will advise you on whether you should proceed with your shop. If the company cannot be reached by phone, continue on with your shop, detailing the condition or action very precisely in your report.

If you see abuse, physical or verbal, a phone call to your assigning agency (outside of earshot of the store, please) is a good idea. Again, they may wish to cancel your shop immediately, or they might have you continue. As long as the situation doesn't degrade to fisticuffs or handguns, it's a disciplinary issue but not dangerous.

In the case of till-to-pocket, the situation might not be what you think you saw. As a trained observer, you will need to describe the incident as clearly as possible in your written report. Did you actually see the money go into the employee's pocket, or was she reaching for a tissue? Exact times here are crucial as many stores will have security video they can check. Your very best, honest reporting of the occurrence without personal commentary, is essential.

It is very hard to avoid personal commentary in these situations. It seems natural to attribute blame to one party, but that is not your call.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A challenging photo audit

I had an "open audit" not long ago. I was asked to visit one of those mall playgrounds with rides and check each ride. Each ride was tested (with a helpful rider I brought along), photographed, described and the overall platform was checked for safety issues. The mystery shopping company provided me with an authorization letter in case I was questioned.

While performing my audit, I noticed an older gentleman watching me very closely. When I got out my camera to photograph a safety issue, he got on his cell phone. Within moments, my daughter and I were being escorted to the mall cop office for questioning. I showed them my letter, which did not impress them. I explained the assignment, which did not impress them. I provided the phone number of the assigning company and my business card, which they pushed aside on their desk. I asked their concern and they said, "You can't be too careful nowadays. What if you're a terrorist taking pictures so you'll know the best place to set a bomb?"

National paranoia is running a tad high, which I can certainly understand. The older gentleman acted very wisely, in my opinion. He was alert to suspicious activity and reported it to the proper authorities. The mall cops even handled it well, and called the assigning company to verify my credentials...eventually. Everyone remained calm and non-threatening.

But those of us who work in stealth mode need to know that we are being observed, and those observations might raise suspicion. And we need to be prepared. Think through the scenario at least once every couple months in your career. What do you do if you are questioned by a store employee? A manager? A mall cop? A police officer? Each answer should be slightly different. I had an advantage in that this was an open audit and I felt free to discuss my assignment. Had I been "undercover," the situation might have been a bit pricklier.

It deserves a moment of your time to consider the scenario, however.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My New Year's Resolution: No Thanks!

Happy New Year, shoppers! I hope 2009 brings you financial and educational opportunities beyond your dreams!

My business-related New Year's Resolution is to stop saying, "Thank you." Well, not all the time.

One of the hardest habits I've had to break as a mystery shopper is the tendency to say, "Thank you" every time something is handed to me. My mama drilled it into me good that polite people say thank you.

But as a mystery shopper, I need to give the salesperson time to thank me without stepping on their cues. If I say thank you when my purchase is handed to me, the salesperson might check off "thanking" on their mental checklist and perhaps not give the "thank you for your business" closure they are instructed to give.

But breaking this habit has been a difficult one for me. My way of dealing with it (and many of the other challenges of shopping) has been to slow down the entire transaction. At a drive-thru window, for example, I'll arrive at the window with my car window rolled up. The few seconds required to roll my window down are all I need to catch a nametag or proper description most times. As long as that event is not timed, there is no harm. Same thing in a department store. I'll get into my purse and fiddle for my keys instead of grabbing the bag as it is handed to me. This gives the sales person time to say "thank you" or whatever closing they intend to use before I'm on my way.

And, to quiet the mother in my head, I offer a sincere "You're welcome" when thanked.