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I consider myself remarkably fortunate to do the things I do. One of the great pleasures of interacting with so many organisations is that I get to meet some amazing people….. some amazing leaders. Many of you will have heard or read about my Grandma – Pauline Golding. Those of you who have not, you can read about this amazing lady here! The story led to me meeting the man responsible for Customer Experience at McDonalds in the UK. John Upton has become someone I consider a friend and a mentor.

I am therefore delighted to feature John’s first ever blog post – one that I am sure you will enjoy reading as much as me. If you have ever wondered whether mystery shopping programmes are an effective way of capturing insight into your customer experience, it is a hugely insightful read….


In his book, The World As I See It, Albert Einstein wrote “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”  For those not able to embrace this, Einstein considered them to be “as good as dead.”

Now death, I appreciate, is hardly the most positive theme or smile generator to be kicking off this article.  Particularly when you thought you had clicked to read about customer experience and mystery shopper programmes.     Unless, that is, you are an undertaker, taxidermist or tax collector.   Or coffin maker – the list of does go on and I’ll leave you to complete in your own time….

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Anyway, getting back to the land of living.  There may be more life in Herr Einstein’s words about embracing the mysterious than you might at first think.  I think he can teach us a thing or two to help us to think again about mystery shopper programmes.

Albert Einstein was not all about science and his famous relativity theory.  He also used his considerable brainpower to comment on a range of topics including politics, religion, art and philosophy.   And, through this thinking, to provide alternative perspectives to challenge us to reconsider conventional wisdom and why things are the way they are.

And it is this challenge that’s inspired me to write this article.  After many years being immersed in the customer experience world, he’s made me think again about one particular element.  Mystery shopper programmes.  And, importantly, how they add value to both customers and companies.

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For me, here’s the central question. If the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious, then why do a number of mystery shopper programmes have the mystery removed?

Such de-mystified programmes are positioned as barometers of a brand’s customer experience.  They are carefully and deliberately designed to capture specific elements of a customer’s experience.  They focus on a narrow range of products, operate only at limited times and comprise only a small number of shopper visits.  Targets are put in place and metrics are set up to hold operators to account.

The feedback is then collected, extrapolated and used to identify and highlight current trends or to validate plans.  Sometimes to challenge or ratify perceptions held in Head Office as to what’s going on out there in the real customer world.  Once analysed, the output may then also be used to shape strategy.

Those in favour of this type of approach will readily seek to demonstrate the value that’s been created.  Trends will be produced to show how the customer experience has improved and how the programme has driven the business forward.

Operators will be praised having delivered on the metrics.  And, through its halo effect, the programme will be deemed to have successfully impacted overall customer experience.

I can see the logical value of this approach.

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However, like the good scientists (or perhaps philosophers) we are, let’s think about this approach a bit more.  You can target and focus activity in your business.   Get it.   You can show you’ve made progress with your customers.  Yes, I agree.

However, who has determined what it is that should or should not be measured?  How much is the customer actually at the forefront of this decision?  Who, in your organisation, is ensuring that all of your customers will win from your programme, both in terms of implementation and output?

And, don’t forget, we humans are clever.  Staff members soon get wise as to what’s expected with limited programmes and we’re quickly off into the world of a “gamed” programme.

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Too often, an “experience switch” can be flicked and the customer experience changes altogether when a programme window closes.  Sadly, not often for the better.  Particularly where there is a bonus or incentive linked to performance.

And, when you do take time to digest this, are you really willing to accept differing levels of customer experience in your business? Does that work for you as a customer yourself?

You are also potentially basing strategic decisions on only a fraction of the total customer experience delivered by your business.  Are you really getting enough customer reality into your thinking?  Would you build your own house on such sandy ground?

So, what I do conclude?  I believe that there can be a good life for mystery shopper programmes in today’s world.  But only where they are wholly mysterious and not able to be gamed.  Programmes that are implemented by shoppers able to enjoy the full range of what you have to offer to all of your customers.  Any time.

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And, importantly, mystery shopper programme insight and output must only be used alongside other streams of customer feedback.  Never in isolation.  Blended for example with the customer views shared so willingly nowadays through various social media and other channels.

By keeping to this alternative theory of relativity, I believe you give yourself the best chance of creating the most beautiful experiences for your customers.


john upton

John Upton, Senior Director, Retail, Leisure & Hospitality

John previously worked at McDonald’s UK in a variety of senior roles including leading the Customer Experience team. He’s currently taking some time out to support his family with the arrival of their 3rd son and to explore what he might do next. He’s open-minded as to where that exploration takes him but he’s certainly excited about the next challenge, whatever it may be.

Tel: 07736 362522