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!

Why is Customer Feedback so Difficult to Accept

My wife and I are back in the states until July 27th getting a chance to see old friends and spending a few days at our home on the Lake in Brown County Indiana. We are also traveling quite a bit and are in Chicago for Fusion 2010 the e-learning conference hosted by Desire2Learn.  They are the last significant proprietary Learning Management System competitor to Blackboard now that Angel has been purchased.  They have an excellent product and are working hard to add new innovations which educators are requesting. It has been a long and difficult battle for CEO John Baker and his team. They compete with the market giant Blackboard, for customers as well as the courtroom over patents, To Desire2Learn’s credit, they are prospering, and gaining market share by providing an excellent product, and listening to customers, something Blackboard can’t seem to grasp.

Feedback from customers and prospects is always a challenge. No matter the business, be it a department store, restaurant, a  mom and pop operation, education facility, government or a multi-national corporation you are taught feedback from customers is essential. However why do so many only pay lip service to listening and responding?

 In my opinion for many CEO’s it’s about ego. You have people giving their opinions on your business who know nothing about what it takes to start and successfully grow something. Why should the CEO really pay attention to what they say and do something about their comments?  We all know the answer… if you don’t, someone else will eventually get our customers and put us out of business.

 I think getting feedback, listening to comments, both good and bad and then acting upon the data is extraordinary difficult.  You need to have very thick skin and be willing to adapt. You as the person in charge need be smart and tough enough to work feedback into your overall planning process. It is why customer research, employee feedback, and keeping up to speed on industry trends is so important. 

One thing I have learned while living these past 18 months in the Middle East is customer service makes a difference in business growth no matter where you live. In the UAE, customer service and companies gathering consumer feedback and using it to improve their overall operations is far behind what I see in the USA. Perhaps it’s because they are dealing with a very transit population. Many people are living in this part of the world for a short time, meaning 1-3 years. Expectations for superior customer service and business seriously listening to you are low. Maybe its language barriers, or maybe being a stranger in a foreign land makes you more willing to accept lessor standards. Some believe I know even say it’s God’s will for things to happen in a certain way.  I can tell you all nationalities rich or poor know the difference between good service and bad service and if they find the product they want from someone else that is similar in price and quality and get better customer service, they will stick with that business and tell their friends. It’s one of those tie breaker items and if you give better service than your competitor the odds of your business succeeding improves.

Going full circle, if Desire2Learn stays on the path of listening to current and potential customers they will continue to gain new clients from the big guy. I just hope they will stay in the marketplace and not sell out to Blackboard like so many others. We need competition and excellence in customer service in all sectors to improve products and encourage innovation.

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