The Delusion of Mystery Shopping in Healthcare and Service

Mystery shopping originally began in the 1940s as a way to assess the integrity of employes of banks and retail stores.  In recent years, the industry has morphed into other areas like customer satisfaction, compliance and improvement for many different service industries including hospitals, car dealerships, restaurants, theaters, gyms and the list goes on.

I first encountered mystery shopping while working with bank call centers and for the most part it was used as a compliance tool to be sure that agents were being friendly, answering the phone correctly and offering other products during the call.  Most call center agents would tell me that they usually could tell when a mystery shopper called because “they just don’t sound or act the same as a real customer.”

In hopspitals, mystery shoppers are used as “fake” patients or a friend going through the process with a patient.  The customer experience is noted by what they see in the process of checking in a patient, delivery of services and/or the payment process.  The idea is completely plausible but the premise is faulty.

Whether mystery shopping is used  for compliance, market research and/or improvement it is the wrong approach.  Compliance typically means that we have some standard process, script or procedure that we are trying to catch someone doing something right or wrong.  It is a sneaky way of doing monitoring or inspection on employees of service organizations.

Forced compliance is not a good idea, in most industries I have found that agents are up against compliance to things that really don’t matter to the customer or patient.  Most standards used for compliance come top-down in command and control fashion and not from an understanding of customer demands or the work.  This leads to mystery shopping that looks for the wrong things as service organizations force compliance inside-out rather than outside-in.

Market research to me is just another way of finding out what matters to customers.  This is best done as an internal exercise as surveys and observation by outside agents winds up as a report that no one takes action on.  Further, the knowledge of market research is best gained by those interacting customers (front-line employees) as they have knowledge of both the work and the customer or patient.  I have seen many good ideas from employees never get tapped into or worse ignored.

In the improvement arena, I don’t need a mystery shopper to pretend to be a patient or customer.  Service organizations have plenty of these every day that we can learn from.  And for hospitals who has time to deal with artificial demand (patients)?

If improvement is to happen in service organizations mystery shopping is not the way to go.  Service organizations need to understand that the biggest opportunity for improvement is the design and management of the work.  This is best improved by understanding customer purpose and demand, deriving customer measures from this understanding and experimenting with with method that leads to improved work design and innovation.

So save your mystery shopping money and invest in performing check on your organization to understand the what and why of current performance.  By understanding how you perform today your service organization will be on the way to improving service.

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Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at or LinkedIn at

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