Turn Customers Into Mystery Shoppers

I wandered around the mall recently, making my Christmas gadget wish list and marveling at all the cool stuff that’s come out in the last couple years. Camera phones, Wi-Fi-enabled laptops (define), Bluetooth gadgets of all kinds, wireless gaming systems, teeny-tiny digital cameras… you name it. Then I read Zach Rogers’ article on some of the advertising implications of this new tech and started musing about my last column on advertising and games. Then the little light bulb in my ad-geek beanie went off. Maybe we’re thinking about all this stuff the wrong way. Instead of figuring out new ways to push ads out to this new tech, maybe we should think about how to harness the tech to bring us better information.

In these days of decreasing margins, increased return on investment (ROI) pressure, enhanced analytics, and a greater desire to understand human behavior to better target advertising in an increasingly chaotic market, more information about customers and the customer experience is a valuable commodity. Transactions that are naturally logged due to their digital nature (anything online, credit card transactions, and mobile traffic) are relatively easy to understand. But the Holy Grail of most consumer goods marketers is to truly be there at the point of purchase, seeing the customer transaction when it happens, keeping tabs on the in-store behavior of sales personnel, and better understanding the retail shopping environment.

Unlike e-commerce sales, where virtually the entire experience is under the marketer’s control (you set up the site, set the business rules, determine the transaction path, etc.), the retail environment is still a bit messy. It’s possible to control and monitor any one single store, but understanding consumer and employee behavior at the individual store level is tough. Sure, we search for new feedback methodologies through customer response cards, surveys, post-sale follow up, focus groups, consumer panels, and sometimes even retail ethnography. All that stuff is fine. But the day-to-day customer experience is tougher to get a handle on.

With new networked technologies, we have a real-time consumer feedback channel that goes beyond the quantitative data we already collect and analyze. Because the data are in an easy-to-understand format, given the right analytic tools (and time to use them) we have a good idea of what’s happening. What we don’t have is a tool for finding out why things happen. Now we do.

Here’s my proposal: Instead of probing consumers for information after the fact, why not turn customers into constantly observing ethnographers reporting back to us on the actual in-store experience (or even their own buying-decision processes) using the tools they now have in their hands? Turn them loose in the retail environment to document the buying experience; in their own homes to document any product issues; in airports to report on flight delays, service problems, great experiences… whatever occurs when they come into contact with your brand.

Given the popularity of these devices (and that consumers love to be heard), creating real-time networks of constantly reporting “mystery shoppers” (but not so mysteriously shopping) could provide retailers and service businesses with an invaluable stream of data. Customers could solve the mystery of what happens every day on a personal level with companies, products, and their own experiences.

What’s in it for consumers, you ask? Reporting incentives shouldn’t be hard to set up. Establish feedback email addresses to receive pictures, short Web-based forms for reporting, or email templates to send feedback. Points toward further purchases, coupons, or discounts would provide the incentive necessary to prompt the feedback. Providing readily accessible feedback channels fits into the growing trend of consumers taking control of their purchasing and entertainment experiences. You may not even need to prod too much, just publicize the information about how to provide feedback.

Imagine product designers and “cool hunters” in the fashion industry receiving real-time updates of the latest trends or consumer problems. Imagine brand managers having a 24/7 eye on how their brands are displayed (or “misdisplayed”) in the marketplace. Imaging gaining feedback from thousands (if not millions) of consumers in the “real world” on products and services rather than hoping for dribs and drabs from focus groups and multiple-choice surveys. With mass real-time, consumer-initiated ethnography, companies could more rapidly respond to trends, correct service problems, and even potentially head off lawsuits.

The tools are ready and becoming more ubiquitous by the minute. Consumers are getting used to being heard and welcome the chance to provide feedback. We already spend millions of dollars in time and money pouring over Web analytics and mining credit card and other purchase behaviors. Combining the personal networked technologies of today would help close that last-mile gap between the online and retail spaces. The result would be better products, more effective services, and more satisfied customers. Open the channel. Consumers are ready to speak.

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