Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Merchandising, and every aspect of life for certain, but today’s post is about mystery shopping and merchandising and how important a good set of communication skills is vital to being successful in your job.

The first thing I want to say is if you have ANY doubt about how a job is to be done you should check with the scheduler for that job to get it clarified.  This can normally be done from an online help feature with each company. Some companies have people on duty to answer your questions immediately.  Others you may have to wait as much as 48 hours to get your response.  So it is vital that you contact them as soon as you realize you have a question.

Some have phone numbers you can call for help while in the field.  Unfortunately that number is on the website and if you don’t have a smart phone, which I don’t, and you are miles away from your computer that phone number is not assessable to you easily.  To avoid this problem either enter into your phones memory the numbers for the help desks for each company, or keep a list of them in your mystery shopping bag.

What you don’t have a mystery shopping bag?  Why not?  What is it?  It is your all purpose tool for doing mystery shops and merchandising of all types.

Mine is an oversized purse with sturdy handles.  Into it goes my clipboard with my paperwork and route print out on it, my address book, spare ink pens, a stop watch, an ipod, a small spiral notebook, a pair of scissors, a small stapler, a camera, spare batteries for the camera,  a screw driver that has a Phillips head tip on one end and a flat head tip on the other, my cash envelope that is designated “reimbursables” for those small required purchases, my vendor name tag and any specific tools that a job might need.  In the past I’ve used a zippered three ring binder, but have found the tote bag easier for my personal needs.

I keep the bag fully stocked at all times.  I have found having it prepared and ready to go prevents getting out and into a bind for doing a job. 

I must admit that the small address/phone number book is a very recent addition to the bag.  I had a page of the numbers in the three ring binder when I was carrying it, but never got around to putting something similar into the bag until I ran into a problem recently that could have saved me a lot of time and frustration.

I was doing a reimbursable mystery shop that required me to shop a certain department of a store and ask a certain set of questions.  Over the last seven years I have done literally hundreds of such shops, but I still print my paperwork and go over it just prior to doing the shop to make sure the company has not changed how they want the job done.

I also read the entire job description prior to signing up for a job—more on why I do this in my next post.  On this particular job I had read the entire set of paperwork online before deciding to take the job, and then had printed the paperwork out immediately after making the decision.  I did not stop to read what had printed right then because after all I printed what was on the screen, or so I thought.  

Oh I looked at it to make sure I had all the pages, but did not reread all the pages at that point. There were two identical jobs to do at two different locations. Generally I will only print the instructions once to save on paper and ink, but for some reason I printed out both sets of the instructions separately.

The next day as I arrived to do the first of the two I pulled out the instructions to verify the department and scenario.  Everything was on the paperwork, but that!  The sentence was there, but where they normally put in the required department and item was blank on both sets of instructions!

Now I had a problem, nowhere on that paperwork was any contact information for the mystery shopping company.  I was over forty miles from home and no smart phone.  I had contracted to complete both shops on that specific day, before a certain time.  There was not time to drive home, look up the information and drive back.  I had to go with what I remembered from reading the night before and pray that it was right.

When I went to file my reports that evening the online paperwork said an entirely different department and item.  Great now what?  I had spent a lot of fuel, and made two purchases I thought I was to be reimbursed for, not to mention I would not get the over $20 I had contracted for, because you MUST do the correct department and item to get paid.

I was pretty upset, in all the hundreds of mystery shops I have done I had NEVER shopped the wrong department before.  Now I had done so with not one but TWO shops.

I decided honesty is the best policy.  I emailed the scheduler and explained what had happened and what I would have swore the paperwork had said when I signed up.

In the email I included the job number, the locations, and my auditor id number, along with my phone number. Then I did not file the two shops. I couldn’t because the department and item were wrong.

I went to bed that night pretty upset with myself.

Communication works two ways.  The auditor called me the first thing the next morning.  I was NOT wrong in the department and item, there had been a clerical error at the company that they had corrected mid-day the day before, while I was actually performing the shops, and they had changed the department and item at that time! 

She went on to apologize to me for the distress it had caused me, told me to file my reports that day and that I would be paid in full, including the reimbursements.  All past due notices would be removed from my file as well.

If I had not sent the email, the result would have been entirely different.  If I had taken the phone number with me, they could have notified me then that the department and item had been changed.

Other times having the contact info with me have paid off have included not being able to find a location.  I once could not find a $50 bank shop in a town as per the instructions, address, and map the company had supplied.  Luckily that day I had the phone number with me.  A quick call made me my $50, a typo at the company had put the bank in the wrong town.  Luckily the town it was in was actually a suburb of the larger town and just a few miles away.  No communication—no $50.

I lost one big shop for a similar situation on a fuel station, because the map supplied by the company had it at a residential location and not where it actually was over 50 miles away, in an entirely different town.  If I had taken the contact info with me I could have saved myself the two hours and fuel I spent looking for it with a simple phone call.

Another important reason for having the contact info is sometimes the companies you are auditing are not always nice to the auditors.  In one fuel shop I was literally cursed at and thrown out of the store for merely asking permission to take photos—the location had several violations.  I had not been rude, I had asked permission—as required, to take general over all photos.  The minute the manager saw my camera he went crazy.  I found out later he and the supplier were in a lawsuit and he thought I was collecting “evidence” for the other side.

I called the firm that had hired me and got permission to not complete the job and still be paid. 

One major retail store I audit often will not allow photos of any sort in their particular location, while others in the chain will.  The auditing job I do there requires photos.  So each time I must call the scheduler and tell them where I am and the situation.  I do all other aspects of the job, but don’t even take my camera into that store to avoid being escorted out.

Another important communication aspect is the “life happens” part.  No one schedules when their car will break down, they will catch the crud, when snow and ice will make streets impassable, or any other number of emergencies.  When this happens you need to let your scheduler know IMMEDIATELY.  Most times they will allow you to reschedule.  If not they will remove you from the job with little or no penalty as long as you let them know IMMEDIATELY. 

Remember they are also under contract with the companies you are auditing and if you don’t do the job they don’t get paid either.  It is far better to be honest with the company and allow them to hire someone else to get the job done on time then to make up a fairy tale as to how the evil step-mother prevented you from doing the job on time.

Communication skills are also important in filing your reports, particularly ones with narratives.  Some companies want simple short sentences, or descriptions of 100 characters or less.  Others want a detailed accounting of exactly what transpired and when.  Know your company, know their requirements and do your job well.

Some companies will rate you on your communication skills and will only hire you for the jobs your skills cover.  To help improve your rating consider writing your narratives in Word or other similar word processing programs before filling out the online report.  Run a spelling and grammar check.  Let the narrative cool a bit and then re-read it aloud to yourself.  For some reason reading aloud helps you pick out incomplete sentences and narrative flow, or at least it does for me.

Then do a simple cut and paste into the form to file the report. The extra time you take to do this can make a difference in the availability of jobs and the amount you will be paid.

Communication is also essential while doing the tasks. If you are not good at making up a scenario on the fly and sticking to it convincingly when doing a mystery shop, plan your scenario out in advance.  As a person who writes both factual and fictional stories on a regular basis I can usually come up with a scenario easily, but there have been situations where that would not have been true because I knew nothing about the subject matter and needed to do some research prior to the shop.  A short cruise around the web can tell a person who doesn’t own a pool some common pool conditioner problems so they can easily do a pool supplies shop. 

I know nothing about playing golf, yet I can do very convincing golf equipment shops after doing just a little bit of web research.  After all it doesn’t take much to pretend to be a novice golfer. You just need to have just enough knowledge and good communication skills to get the golf pros talking.  They’ll do the rest.  Same for the home improvement scenarios. Car repair telephone shops for luxury cars when you are personally driving a beater are a snap with just a little bit of web research.

It all comes down to communication.

In my next post I’ll discuss the true importance of really READING the job requirements BEFORE you sign up for a job.

To read more on mystery shopping and merchandising how to’s visit the following posts:




Jan who hopes her communication on communication has been very clear in OK

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