Second to None
Second to None
Second to None
Second to None

The Ultimate Guide to Mystery Shopping in your Organization

The Ultimate Guide to Mystery Shopping in your Organization

table of contents

What’s keeping you from understanding your customer…

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Has your organization been struggling with its customer service?
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Do you wish there was a simpler way to understand your customers?
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Are you wondering if your customers are getting poor service?
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Do you wonder if the service experience your organization provides is resonating with your customers?
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Is bad data or lack of reporting keeping you in the dark?
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Are you interested in receiving honest feedback about your employees that could elevate customer satisfaction?

is mystery shopping valuable for my industry?

Mystery shopping is the gateway to understanding your customers and delivering a more meaningful customer experience.

For years, mystery shopping has been used by top Fortune 500 companies to get an inside look at how their employees are delivering on their brand promises when interacting with customers. As a result, these companies exceed expectations in customer service and stay ahead of their competition.

Now the big questions — what exactly is mystery shopping? Are mystery shopping programs legitimate? How can mystery shopping help my organization reach its business goals?

We dive into all these questions and more in our all-inclusive guide to mystery shopping.

What is mystery shopping?

What is Mystery Shopping

Mystery shopping is the practice of deploying certified consumers across your brand to measure, understand, and improve performance. These trained consumers are known as mystery shoppers, and their objective feedback is crucial in helping you understand how well you’re executing on your key operational standards.

How It Works


Step 1:
Mystery shoppers are usually certified with a mystery shopping provider, or an organization like the MSPA, and are equipped with a set of guidelines detailing all the customized requirements and observations as specified during the design phase of a program.


Step 2:
Different mystery shoppers are sent to the various locations of your organization, or across other channels such as phone or website, utilizing customized scenarios to match the experience. Once the assignment is completed, mystery shoppers will submit their findings to a mystery shop provider.


Step 3:
The data is then dispersed and analyzed across the organization based on hierarchy, and evaluated according to the mystery shopping provider’s guidelines. The goal is to gather a comprehensive and consistent level of data from all locations and channels, which will allow your organization to take immediate action on issues that will lead to impactful changes in your customer experience.

Why is mystery shopping important?

According to a report by Accenture, poor customer service resulted in US companies losing 1.6 trillion dollars. And 52% of these customers have become serial switchers, meaning they were willing to switch brands after a poor customer service experience. Poor customer service has become a major concern for many businesses.

An objective way to identify where poor customer service is happening.

Mystery shopping is important because it allows companies to evaluate their customer service objectively. Customer service is the most critical indicator for companies to leave a positive impression on new customers or reinvigorate current customers.

Get insights from your own employees.

Mystery shoppers provide insight into the information your employees are sharing about your products or services. When a customer enters a store, employees serve as the bridge between the customer and the product or service being provided. Your employees have access to a wealth of information about your product or service that, depending on how it is shared, can have a significant influence on a customer’s purchasing decision and brand loyalty.

For example, an employee may have information about similar products in their store if the customer’s specific desired product is out of stock. They may also have a list of complementary products that would partner well with that specific product. All of this information would position customers further down the buying journey. By implementing a mystery shopping program, you can solidify the knowledge of your employees so they are prepared to provide a superior customer interaction with everyone who enters your store or visits your website.

A better way to monitor employee performance.

Mystery shopping offers an unbiased, outside-in perspective of how your employees operate on a daily basis. In your organization, it may be difficult to pinpoint how well your employees are performing on a daily basis. Additionally, you may not have the means to monitor employee performance across your various locations or channels. The information gathered from research is valuable to leadership and frontline employees because it helps point out areas that need improvement.

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Evaluate your customer service objectively
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Know when and where poor customer service is happening
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Get valuable insights from your own employees
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Find out how your employees are really performing

Competitive benchmarking: another benefit of mystery shopping

Understanding current and emerging trends in the market can be a major differentiator favoring your brand over the competition.

Competitive benchmarking is a form of mystery shopping that can help capture this data by sending evaluators to measure and observe how your competitors’ locations are operating. Once you collect enough information about the market-at-large, your brand can begin to adjust the customer experience to meet these evolving consumer desires.

Is mystery shopping legitimate?

Is mystery shopping legitimate?

Not every mystery shopping program is the same and mystery shopper scams do exist. If you’re a person looking for legitimate mystery shopping jobs, you want to be careful. If you want to hire a legitimate mystery shopping vendor, make sure to evaluate them carefully. To determine the effectiveness and integrity of a mystery shopper or mystery shopping program, follow these steps:

Valid mystery shoppers should never have to pay.

One of the most common misconceptions about mystery shopping is that mystery shoppers must pay to complete assignments. This is simply not true. Valid mystery shopping companies always compensate their mystery shoppers. Mystery shopping companies who follow best practices will never ask their shoppers to pay for registering for a mystery shopping program or ask them to wire money. Those are two sure signs of a fraudulent program.

A quality mystery shopping program will not outsource and will provide full data transparency. 

If the company you employ to do mystery shopping is outsourcing a significant percentage of the workload to third-party companies, you may want to avoid that company so your brand does not waste any time or money waiting on third-party vendors during any part of the process. Second To None has created a culture in which virtually all aspects of their mystery shopping programs are accomplished in-house. They employ talented associates and directors across multiple genres and platforms to provide their clients with quick, informative, and clear analysis of all the data that has been collected.

The best mystery shopping programs follow a rigorous quality assurance process.

Another problem that plagues mystery shopping programs is a lack of data integrity. Mystery shopping is a science dependent on crowd-sourced information. In many mystery shopping programs, incentives are offered to shoppers for completing shops on time and correctly. However, as is true among most areas of life, there are people who may feel compelled to take shortcuts or bypass program requirements in order to receive the incentive without accurately completing the shop. In response to this issue, Second To None’s in-house quality assurance team has built-in procedures to ensure that shoppers are upholding all specifications and program standards. Not only does Second To None strive to maintain efficiency and accuracy of the data while building out the guidelines and questionnaires, but they also build and monitor every shopper response received in their Shopper Hub, which was created and is fully managed in-house. This ensures that the data you are receiving is accurate and reliable.

Check with the MSPA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association).

The MSPA has a list of recent fraudulent activity of mystery shopping companies. If you would like to get better insight into the companies who are actually qualified to run mystery shopping programs, you can look here.

Second to None has been a trusted mystery shopping provider for 32 years, with an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau and an active certification with the MSPA.

the history of mystery shopping: a timeline

The History of Mystery Shopping: A Timeline

Now you may be wondering, when did mystery shopping begin? For years, mystery shopping has been used across top organizations to gauge customer experience. Here is a brief history of mystery shopping:


Mystery shopping started in the 1940s with work conducted by the research company Wilmark. Wilmark worked with private investigators to evaluate the integrity of organizations. They went to banks and retailers to observe employee behavior and see if they were handling cash transactions truthfully. This sparked the beginning of mystery shopping.


In the 1970s, mystery shopping grew across industries. Approximately 25-35% of all banks with over $300 million in deposits had used mystery shopping to some extent.

In the banking industry, mystery shopping was primarily used as a benchmark study. Through benchmarking studies, mystery shoppers followed up with organizations every 1-2 years with evaluations. This time frame made it difficult to detect changes in organizational strength, as many changes could be wrongly attributed. The follow-ups conducted by mystery shopping programs would become more frequent as the industry evolved.

The 70s were very important for sales culture. Many companies started taking steps to understand the importance of measuring sales performance. Mystery shopping was a breakthrough method to monitor sales performance across organizations. This provided companies with the correct infrastructure to improve sales and hit their benchmarks.


During the 80s, quality of service became important. This was because of the rise of the internet. As we became more connected, expectations of customer service took a higher standard. Businesses would stop hiring third-party evaluators for their mystery shopping. They turned to market research companies that offered a more data-driven solution. In evaluations of customer service, mystery shopping programs asked questions less centered on emotion and focused on specific actions taken by customer service agents.

For example, this type of question: How did Employee X make you feel during your interaction?

May now be replaced with: Did Employee X hand you a business card and give you his or her contact information for follow-up?

Questions became more specific to measure customer experience more intentionally across organizations. This shift in mindset led to the rise of the specialized mystery shopping program.

And during this decade, Second to None was founded by Jeff Hall. Second to None first launched its mystery shopping program in 1989. Now, they have grown to provide over 400,000 active mystery shoppers across the United States and Canada.


The mystery shopping industry is now worth 1.5 billion dollars. Mystery shopping has expanded into more industries including healthcare, automotive, retail, financial services, restaurants, and e-commerce. Additionally, mystery shopping services have become more specialized. Now they are not only limited to measuring employee interactions, but the entire customer journey that organizations offer.

Second to None offers an impressive set of customer experience solutions in addition to mystery shopping services, all to enhance customer joy. With a broader set of services, mystery shopping, and related methods of measuring customer satisfaction in any type of organization, is expected to continue to grow.

Why should your organization use mystery shopping?

Why should your organization use mystery shopping?

Now the big question, what value can mystery shopping bring to my organization? Is it worth the time and effort of implementing a program and measuring across my business?

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Mystery shopping enables organizations to accurately measure their customer experience across all touchpoints.
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Mystery shopping provides the data and actionable insights needed to improve the overall experience and brand performance.
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Mystery shopping focuses on associate interaction and employee engagement with your valued customers.
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Each individual interaction shapes the overall perception that consumers have of your brand.
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Mystery shopping allows you to create a more people-centric customer experience in evaluating the humanity and authenticity across your organization.

This last point is important. 

Most organizations view their success in terms of market share, conversions, and transactions. On the surface, this makes sense. Greater market share and conversions drive competitive advantage and brand loyalty.

However, at Second To None, we understand that your customers are real people who are seeking a brand they can trust and interact with employees who value their business. To many organizations, customers may simply be viewed as data points. When this is true, customers may begin to feel that they are just another metric driving your business. Mystery shopping enables your brand to create a more people-centric customer experience by evaluating the authenticity of the experience you are offering and providing actionable insights that will allow you to elevate the entire customer experience.

We created an entire guide on crafting a human-centered customer experience in your organization, and you can access it here.


Is mystery shopping valuable for my industry?

Mystery shopping is not just for restaurants and retail brands with multiple locations. Your organization, regardless of the industry and number of locations it has, can gain valuable insights by implementing a mystery shopping program.

Consumer Services Mystery Shopping

Service-based businesses such as gyms, for example, can gain an extreme competitive advantage through mystery shopping. Through implementing mystery shopping programs, the experience of gym members can be evaluated within the organizations to ensure all members are receiving a highly valuable experience that retains their loyalty over time.

Retail Mystery Shopping

Large restaurant chains and retail brands have a competitive advantage in mystery shopping programs, as they’re able to access a very large customer base. A significant customer base provides more data to drive insights across diverse customer groups. Additionally, multiple locations in brands help operationalize standards across their various locations. With a consistent customer experience across these locations, customers feel valued and this can convert into impressive results in customer retention across their locations. Major retailers including Under Armour and Whole Foods Market were able to exceed expectations in their customer experience after obtaining valuable and actionable insights gathered through their unique mystery shopping programs. These retailers are a few of the major organizations Second To None has worked with to spread joy across their organizations, and you can find out more about the results here.

Luxury Retail Shopping

Luxury Retail Industry is a space dominated by brands with consistently great reputations. Typically, due to the increased price point of dealing with a luxury brand, your team must handle inflated customer expectations. One negative customer service experience can spiral into hundreds of lost customers. Leadership in these brands must maintain trust by providing exceptional service. Mystery shopping helps luxury brands measure the interactions of employees, and in result create more customer joy.

Healthcare Industry Mystery Shopping

Among the many industries where mystery shopping is necessary, healthcare is at the top. STN works directly with insurance companies to measure sales agent compliance with the marketing regulations, particularly as it relates to Medicare/Medicaid products being sold to seniors age 65+. We mystery shop several types of consumer engagements including public formal sale events, public informal events, private face-to-face appointments, and call centers.

We also specialize in mystery shopping clinical lab organizations for general lab visits to assess employee/patient interaction during a blood/urine specimen collection. We access the greeting, appearance of the site, customer service, and more. We also administer pre-employment drug screen visits, designed to assess employee performance of the drug screen collection process and their adherence to the strict procedure for collecting a urine sample for drug screening as mandated by the federal government. In addition to measuring compliance with drug screen collection requirements, we also measure customer service and cleanliness.

The mystery shopping program for physician offices assess the in-office experience and interior/exterior facility condition. This can include exterior maintenance, interior maintenance, marketing signage, customer service at the front desk, appointment availability, office cleanliness, etc. Phone call mystery shops are also conducted at physician offices to assess customer service, employee knowledge, and appointment availability.

Financial Services Mystery Shopping

Banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions (FIs) implement mystery shopping programs to measure overall customer experience for existing members or customers, as well as new customers opening accounts. In a program for this industry, priority assessments are wait times, banker engagement, service offerings, and whether the consumers feel they are treated as people rather than numbers. Does the customer feel cared for? Is the bank being authentic, as well as offering enough options for the consumers to interact? How is the FI delivering service based on their unique customer preferences? All of these questions can be answered for  financial services, and programs are customized to meet the varied needs of each organization.

Entertainment and Travel Mystery Shopping

The travel and entertainment industry is massive, with many moving parts. Consumers buying from this industry are spending a great deal of money for rental cars, hotel accommodations, flights, and tickets to shows. In programs evaluating this industry, priorities are rental processes, whether employees are offering member discounts, service engagement levels, and whether clients’ specific needs are being met by tailoring the offerings to their desired outcome. Are employees providing solutions in anticipation of certain travel scenarios and budgetary restrictions, and then showing their expertise with the right recommendations? How functional and easy to use is the website when it comes to purchase and confirmations? We’re also evaluating every aspect of the on-site resort experience including the restaurants, customer service, lodging, and in-room food service—every moment is covered from check-in to check-out.

Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Over the past 32 years, we’ve worked with those in Fast Casual Dining, Quick Service + Drive-Thru, Cafes + Coffeehouses, Full Service, Fine Dining, and more. Ultimately, in programs for any of these levels within the restaurant industry we’re evaluating overall experience, greetings, wait times, food presentation, quality of food, overall service, cleanliness, signage, compliant audits, menu items and their presentation, and more. Are restaurant employees offering the right discounts and specials—and verbally promoting them? Is there appropriate signage throughout for the current promotions and safety protocols? We evaluate across various locations to monitor down to location-level details, because the details matter greatly to the customer’s overall experience.

Convenience Store Mystery Shopping

Convenience stores have become grab-n-go destinations—it’s all about making sure the consumer gets in and out quickly, safely, and with low effort. Mystery shopping programs for C-stores evaluate the food selection/ordering process, product quality and availability, compliance for alcohol and tobacco sales, wait times, display presentation, pricing, restrooms, cleanliness, shelving and organization, employee uniforms, and whether counters are staffed and serving to the company standards. Ultimately, every aspect of the fuel station, external appearance, and food service are taken into consideration.

Grocery Industry Mystery Shopping

Every grocery consumer is unique, presenting an enormous challenge to brands working to maintain customer loyalty and share-of-wallet. To truly understand the customer experience across this incredibly diverse group, you need to measure their interactions in a specialized, omnichannel program that includes mystery shops, customer surveys, and store audits. Grocery brands should be working to meet all of today’s consumer expectations for cleanliness, safety, product freshness, maintenance of stock levels, speed of staffed counter service, product pricing, the check-in and check-out process including touchless transactions, a knowledgeable and customer-focused staff, pharmacy assistance, curbside pickup and delivery services, and every other element of the grocery store experience.

How can mystery shopping help growing brands?

How can mystery shopping help growing brands?

Mystery shopping is certainly beneficial to the world’s leading brands, but how about growing brands?

Emerging brands must continue to offer a consistent and authentic customer experience. As your brand expands, it becomes challenging to maintain authenticity and consistency across your network.

Mystery shopping can help growing brands:

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Ensure that your expanding locations retain the customer experience you’ve worked hard to build.
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Administer intentional research programs and capture data that can serve as a benchmark for success within your growing infrastructure.
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Get an outside-in perspective of your brand through mystery shoppers’ eyes.
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Ensure that your brand maintains the authenticity necessary for long-term success with your customers.
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Ensure your brand is in position to capture the attention of new customers.

7 tips for a successful mystery shopping program in your organization.

7 tips for a successful mystery shopping program in your organization.

If you’re convinced you need a mystery shopping program, you may be wondering how to begin. Starting this program is not as overwhelming as it may seem.

1. Keep your mystery shopping program simple.

When you first implement your mystery shopping program, make it simple. Many brands will try to collect as many insights as possible from each dollar they spend. While it is helpful to gather more data, too much data can create difficulties for the mystery shopper and the organization. Your organization must have clear and actionable goals, so data is used for these purposes.

2. Work with a trusted third-party provider.

A trusted mystery shopping program provides full data transparency and ensures the integrity of their mystery shoppers by using best practices. Follow these guidelines to avoid a mystery shopping program failure.

3. Set goals for your mystery shopping program.

The ideal goal for any mystery shopping program is to deliver an experience that customers remember. Mystery shopping can give enhanced visibility into the customer experience initiatives of an organization, to deliver a memorable experience to customers. This

goal-oriented mystery shopping program should include these following 4 common themes: Employee Evaluations, Benchmarking, Program/Product Evaluation, and Industry Compliance.

4. Have clear measurements.

Your customer service training programs are key indicators of how well you deliver to

your brand promise. Through behavioral and operational standards in training, feedback provided from mystery shopping can enhance the actionability of the resulting data.

5. Interactional touchpoints are important.

Your associates are the most actionable drivers of customer advocacy. It is important that they are demonstrating care and resourcefulness to your customers. Only meeting minimum customer experience expectations will lead to few customers advocating for your brand. Having a strategy that will exceed customer experience expectations and improve business performance patterns is necessary to your mystery shopping program’s success.

6. Rotate scenarios.

Scenarios are an important aspect of program design. However, when the same scenarios are repeatedly used, then employees will become aware of your identity as a mystery shopper. When this piece of information is exposed, your mystery shopping program will be much less effective across the organization. Having this identity of a mystery shopper, kept a mystery, is necessary for your organization to achieve its goals for improved customer experience.

7. Use secret shopping to craft customer journeys and improve CX.

Getting data from your secret shopping program is just the first step. Understanding customer behavior can be the difference between growth or stagnation of brands. Mystery mapping programs can supply key insights to form an understanding of customers. Mystery mapping is the practice of taking data provided by mystery shopping programs to create a larger perspective of customer behavior. These programs are used to capture specific instances of customer behavior. Having mystery mapping programs are instrumental in leading to improvements across your organization’s customer experience.

Get more tips for What Your Mystery Shopping Program Should Look Like.

Can mystery shopping evaluate an omnichannel digital customer experience?

A final important component to improving your organization’s customer experience through mystery shopping is evaluating the customer’s holistic digital experience.

Whether online, by app, or by phone, over the next two years, it’s estimated that 85% of customer interactions with a brand will occur without humans.

✔️  Customers expect a seamless transition between all digital channels in your organization.

✔️  Social distancing has reshaped the way people shop, from curbside service to mobile app orders.

✔️  Yes, online mystery shopping can evaluate brand experiences across all digital touch points: online, in call centers, via text or mobile app, and more.



Mystery shopping is a beneficial and timeless way to improve your organization’s customer experience. Throughout this guide, we’ve tried to dispel any myths or misconceptions about mystery shopping and show how mystery shopping can contribute to your organization’s long-term success.

Ready to get started with your own mystery shopping program? We can help!

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Learn more about snapshot

Snapshot is our mystery shopping program, which has been core to our company since our founding in 1989. Whether in-store, online, on app, or beyond, we uncover the behavioral and operational drivers of the customer experience that are ultimately responsible for improving customer satisfaction and financial business outcomes. We deploy a carefully profiled consumer field force to assess how well you’re executing on your key operational standards. You’ll understand what customers are experiencing each and every day.