Devon Hill Associates provides healthcare mystery shopping services

Since my firm first started marketing its “mystery shopping” service 22 years ago — first to long-term care facilities and retirement communities and then to hospitals and clinics across the country — we’ve discovered that it often inspires one of two strong reactions: immediate interest or on-the-spot suspicion.

Whether you love or hate the concept, mystery shopping has grown in popularity, and it’s important to understand what it can (and can’t) do for your organization. For example, it’s not a quick-fix way to identify an organization’s sales or customer service woes. Nor is it, as some employees fear, a cleverly covert way for managers to achieve their hidden agenda.

Mystery shopping, however, is an enlightening way to gauge customer and patient satisfaction, identify internal marketing problems and assess a staff’s sales effectiveness. With my years of experience as a mystery shopper at a variety of health care and long-term care facilities, I’d like to offer the following suggestions that should help “demystify” the mystery shopping experience for the first time user — and perhaps even raise a few new ideas for the experienced user, too.

1. Be realistic in your expectations. Imagine mystery shopping as an instant snapshot of one part of your organization at a specific point in time. Polaroid® photos don’t always capture us looking our best, but they do capture the immediacy of the moment: they’re a slice of life, full of emotion, vitality and reality. The best shots are the ones you take close-up; panoramic shots are too big and distorted to be effective.

That’s also what mystery shopping does best: it’s an intimate, very human, close-up look at the people, services and environment encountered by the patients and visitors who come to your facility.

Conversely, mystery shopping is not meant to be a comprehensive look at your organization as a whole, nor an in-depth employee evaluation (remember, it’s a slice of life — while mystery shopping can help identify a potential problem spot, it’s not designed to measure an employee’s consistency of performance).

Mystery shopping lets you see how your organization is performing at a given time, in detail — and what messages of professionalism, responsiveness, sensitivity, caring, customer or patient interest and quality are being communicated. But, just as you wouldn’t base an entire new marketing campaign on the findings of a single focus group, mystery shopping should never be the only vehicle used in making critical operational decisions.

Don’t expect mystery shopping to be cheap — especially in the hospital industry. If you plan to do more than telephone assessments, you’ll be asking the mystery shoppers to become “real” patients, willing to go through various tests, become ER patients or even inpatients. That requires a special kind of mystery shopper — and requires detailed planning and sometimes complex execution.

2. Be clear in your goals. Some people think of mystery shopping merely as a tool for evaluating customer service or sales effectiveness. Its fundamental principles, however, make it remarkably useful for gathering intelligence for a wide range of other projects, such as:

  • Acquiring an “inside view” of how well key competitors perform;
  • Identifying the need for diversity training within an organization;
  • taking the pulse of employee morale and attitudes;
  • identifying special staff talents;
  • investigating how prospective employees are treated on interviews;
  • identifying appropriate ways to “cross sell” other organizational services;
  • checking for consistency of format, standards and appearance from shift to shift or facility to facility (a real asset for regional and national systems).

Mystery shopping can capture information on subjects you might not feel comfortable asking on a patient satisfaction questionnaire. It can help confirm suspected problem areas and even assist in prioritizing future actions from the patient’s point of view.

Another real value of mystery shopping is that it documents the immediate experience: it conveys “this is how I am feeling right now.” In mystery shopping, each moment is recorded as it happens, in real time — unlike patient satisfaction surveys, where people often forget over the passage of time or decide not to reveal negative comments.

3. Decide — in advance — when and whom to tell. In nearly every case, mystery shopping brings good and bad news. One of the most frequent questions we receive is “Should I tell the staff they’ll be observed? Even more importantly, should I tell them what I saw?”

These are questions that deter some managers who worry about risk management (read: legal implications) of mystery shopping from adding it to their research palette. Although each communication should be made on a case-by-case basis, we sometimes advise that employees not be told about a facility’s small “trial run” mystery shopping engagement — before or after it’s conducted — until a decision is made to expand the mystery shopping.

Once the decision is made to go forward, the employees should be advised of the mystery shopping and receive routine feedback on the results. In most cases, employees will formally “authorize” the service.

4. Begin benchmarking. Just as you can look through a family photo album and see its members change and grow over the years, a consistent program of mystery shopping allows you to see real patterns and improvement within an individual facility or across multiple facilities within an organization.

Never approach your first mystery shopping experience with the thought that it will be your last. To be effective it should be incorporated as an ongoing part of your research. The information you collect during each set of encounters lets you identify and compare areas for future improvement, both on a long-term and short-term basis. Depending on the nature and goals of your mystery shopping project, the need for repeat visits or calls can be infrequent as every six months, one year or even two years — or as often once a month.

5. Choose your mystery shopping firm carefully. Few mystery shoppers ever have the chance to get as close a look as I once did when I required emergency surgery while mystery shopping for a major hospital. My years of experience as a health care administrator and consultant helped me pass on valuable — albeit unexpected — information on the total experience to my client.

In choosing a qualified mystery shopping firm, you should first and foremost look for a firm with experience conducting projects in your industry, especially if you are a hospital. Mystery shopping in a hospital is nothing like mystery shopping in other industries. You should look for a company that will respect and protect your facility’s privacy and reputation. Intelligence and excellent powers of observation also are important qualities for the individual mystery shoppers — as well as a strong sense of ethics and objectivity. Find a firm that inspires your trust and confidence and check them out with past references. Don’t hesitate to ask in-depth questions about the background and training of the individual shoppers, too. You’re depending on the mystery shoppers to know what to look for and be able to record it as accurately and comprehensively as possible.

Your mystery shopping firm should also be willing to develop a tailored program designed to address your specific needs. Working together, you can develop the format and report structure that best suits your needs.

Click here to learn more about Devon Hill Associates mystery shopping services or call us at 858-456-7800.