Are Mystery Shoppers Really the Way to Improve Customer Service in the UAE?

I am amazed how poor customer service is in the UAE. Perhaps it’s because I am an American and I have set my standards too high.

A news story this summer about expat customers in the MENA region state that a survey concluded Americans have the highest expectations while citizens of India and Pakistan have much lower expectations. This may be the case, yet a vast majority of expats, no matter what the country, complain about overall service from telephone companies to retail stores in the UAE.
Senior management of these establishments are well aware of the continuous public complaints about indifferent clerks, the inability to deliver or repair an item or return or make an exchange of a product.

Solution, the Mystery Shopper!
The Mystery Shopper is very popular in the UAE and is according to Wikipedia “Mystery shopping was standard practice by the early 1940s as a way to measure employee integrity. Tools used for mystery shopping assessments range from simple questionnaires to complete audio and video recordings. Mystery shopping can be used in any industry, with the most common venues being retail stores, hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, fast food chains, banks, gas stations, car dealerships, apartments, health clubs and health care facilities.”
Mystery shoppers pose as customers in which they perform specific tasks, purchasing a product, asking questions, registering complaints or behaving in a certain way – and then provide detailed reports or feedback about their experiences. Once the report is given to management it is up to them to determine next steps.
In a June 4, 2010 article in The National reported there are thousands of mystery shoppers who “scour banks, shops and hotels across the Emirates every hour of every day, clandestinely monitoring the level of service offered to customers. It’s a service that has become crucial for companies vying for customer loyalty, in a world where people are watching what they spend and where they spend it.”
The article goes to state secret shoppers are “on the front lines, collecting the information and data that’s crucial to understanding the confusing retail and banking landscape.”
With this army of secret shoppers, untold numbers of reports are presented to highly educated members of management. Why is customer service still so poor across all industries?
Well, there are many studies and articles on how to improve customer service but I think the Kipp Report (The Middle East’s first online-only business magazine) states it best in there June 6, 2010 blog “Mystery shoppers? Let Kipp save you the bother:
“Kipp doesn’t think retailers need to invest too much money in hiring mystery shoppers, at least, not yet. Mystery shoppers are an incisive tool aimed at perfecting service in a mature and competent retail market. They can help bring excellence in a retail market of high standards. Here in the UAE, that’s a total waste.

Here’s what retailers need to know: Your customer service levels are, by and large, terrible. There are no strengths, and improvement can be made in every single area. The average customer’s opinion of the shopping experience is that it is a horrific trial of patience and endurance where the staff adds little or no value and the only redeeming aspect is the product.”
Kipp suggest four very basic ideas of which I believe point third is crucial.
1. TRAIN your staff so they know about the products they are selling. Why? It will help them sell more and it will be useful to the customer.
2. TRAIN your staff that following people around a store or hovering next to them constantly is not service, it’s stalking.
3. EMPOWER your staff to work on their initiative, so they could open an extra till when a queue builds up, for instance.
4. MORE does not equal better. Dozens of staff in one store does not equal good service (see point 1) particularly when they can’t follow point 3.
In my conversions with store managers and owners they believe the most effective method to improve customer service is to find the staff that are preforming below par, and weed them out. In some cases fire them, others yell, shame or discipline the staff member so they understand what they are doing wrong. In my years as a executive, I learned quickly it is management’s responsibility to properly train staff to know their products, how to work with customers, and to empower a staff member as much as reasonably possible to take the lead and find ways to solve the problem. This is not done by scaring the staff.
You can have a million secret shoppers but until proper training and empowerment by management and owners is put in place customer service will not improve. I’ll state the obvious, the happier the customer the more likely they are to return to your store and buy again. It is much more cost effective than slick ads or additional employees. Get more employees when you have more customers and do some training!

Middle East marketers needs to get their head out of the sand!

Who will take the lead in effectively using social networking systems?

The MENA region (“Middle East and North Africa”) and in particular the UAE has on the most part, embraced social networks such as Facebook and Twitter recently. According to Facebook there are over 17.3 million users in the MENA region of which 50% use English, 25% use French and 25% use Arabic. The data indicated the majority of new users communicate in Arabic and this trend is expected to continue. Twitter in the Middle East and Africa now has nearly 5 million users It is clear all the social networking groups are experiencing significant growth including LinkedIn and Foursquare, but it seems marketers in the region are not taking advantage of these important tools.

Reporter Ben Flanagan of the National in his story “Marketing Lacks Social Media Skills’” interviews Mohamed Parham al Awadhi, the Emirati co-founder of the Wild Peeta restaurant in Dubai, who states “advertising and media agencies have been slow to evolve and recognize the new ways in which people are communicating.” “Media consultants in the region have “no idea” how to use tools such as Twitter and Foursquare for marketing,” “The “fusion” a shawarma restaurant, which is in talks with possible franchisees over expansion plans, is highly active on Twitter and was one of the UAE’s first businesses to use Foursquare, a social networking application in which users “check in” to broadcast location to peers. Mr. al Awadhi said his company has built its brand “without spending a dime” on marketing.

“The problem with advertising agencies, especially the large established ones, is that they are very slow to evolve. There’s no need for their involvement because they have no idea how to do it (social networking). We don’t need them.”

“Wild Peeta have done really well, but for a larger brand you need a full strategy,” said Rayan Karaky, the MENA region general manager for digital operations at the communications network Publicis Groupe Media.

“If Wild Peeta came to me today and said ‘can you handle our social media?’ I’d say don’t waste your money.” Mr. Karaky said that while location-based sites such as Foursquare had “big potential”, it was too early to tell if such services would become successful marketing tools in the region.

But Yousef Tuqan, the chief executive of Flip Media, one of the largest digital marketing agencies in the Middle East, said Mr. al Awadhi made a “fair comment”. “The problem with social media [in the Middle East] is that everyone is talking about it, but few are actually doing it,” Mr. Tuqan said. “The people who are doing social media the best are the people who are doing it themselves.”

Mr. al Awadhi said his company was looking to expand its use of “location-based” services such as Foursquare and the similar Facebook Places application. The company was also studying Layar, an “augmented reality” mobile application.

It was also among the first companies in the Middle East to have an official Foursquare promotion, he said. The promotion grants the “mayor” of Wild Peeta, or the Foursquare user who had amassed the most “check ins” while at the restaurant, a free daily drink.

From my own personal experiences as a user of multiple networking platforms including Foursquare, the MENA region has yet to take advantage by building their brands to millions of users. In particular I believe the use of Foursquare has great possibilities in driving business and building loyalty.

Starbucks in America recognizes Foursquare users and “mayors” by providing discounts and free drinks, yet in the UAE they seem unaware of Foursquare existent. Example I am a “mayor” in four Starbucks in Abu Dhabi and according to the check in statistics I have been in there stories over 100 times in a four-month period (I really need slow down on the venti Latte’s). Assuming I spend 25 AED ($6.83) per purchase I have spent 2,500 AED ($683) in four months. Now in the world of coffee shops or even restaurant business this is a loyal customer. You want them to continue to frequent the store or encourage others to go to Starbucks instead of a competitor. The use of applications like Foursquare tells the store who are your customers, how often they visit and in turn, send them special discounts as a thank you.

Middle East marketers needs to get their head out of the sand (forgive the pun) and find effective ways to communicate with social media users. Social network marketing will soon be a part of the everyday plan, but the companies who are the first to be innovative and daring with the marketing dollars should reap a highest rewards.