July 20, 2010

Solving the big mystery

                     As markets change and economies become more complicated, there is a proportionate change in consumer preferences too. To meet this change, there has to be another change-an organizational change! The change has to be not just in products but also in the marketing efforts. The trick to this change lies in evaluating existing marketing practices and benchmarking them against the best in the industry. Hmmm…benchmarking or heavy standardization is a broad term; depending on the context you use it. Each company wants to outplay the other in this competing age and feedback becomes as important as the initial planning of the system. Profits and Sales lie on the base of competition. No longer are high earnings or high dividend payouts regarded as internal excellence and similarly, customers are also asking questions if they find competition being more just to their demands. Hence, companies are carrying out competitive evaluation in a manner that will stump normal understanding but it has an underlying logic.

                  Recently, I worked for half a dozen projects which involved me going to places (read client locations) to evaluate their services and products. At the end of it, I had to fill a combined (structured and unstructured) questionnaire, answering various events that took place. From the ambience and cleanliness to the attitude of the staff and the presentation of physical evidence, all went in the review. Of course, it also depended on my mood and how happy I felt in the 'place’.

                  Welcome to the age of ‘mystery shopping’ or ‘ghost shopping’ or ‘service evaluation’ or whatever you want to call it. Here, agencies like the one I undertook this project for, sign contracts with their clientele, who happen to be leading service providers mostly, and aim at finding what really is going on in their area of suspicions. Sounds like detective work, doesn’t it? Well, only partly. It helps that sometimes the clientele already have done their research work, which is they know the problem areas and just need the agency to find out why such and such things are happening, and then arrive at conclusions. The agency in turn sends out their detectives (read mystery shoppers) to the client’s narrowed down list, say a couple of branches--treated as a sample--where the sales haven’t been picking up for the past six months. And then the mystery shopper does the rest, which includes assuming a fake identity and profile most of the time. Once the MS fills the questionnaire, then again the agency guys set to work on the collected data of their mystery shoppers. Generalizing the findings, one can easily arrive at a handful of conclusions to present to the client, who is more than happy to accept it and sets about ‘correcting’ things in the ways and manners of his organization policies.

                    Of the half a dozen, projects which I have handled, one of them included almost ten branches of an IT service provider that provides software coaching to students. Assuming a student profile and talking to the counselors was no big deal but when it comes to translating them in evaluation parameters, it becomes a tad difficult and of course, recording the premises without seeming suspicious is a little more than a challenge. Similarly, there was a leading animation academy, who wanted to gain feedback from its prospective customers and the closes it could get was simulated mystery shoppers. It played safe without giving its staff a whiff of things in the administration. Then there was a famous coffee chain outlet of the past, falling to modern competition but still wanted to spunk up internal matters, so out we went to its three locations in different parts of the city. Somewhere the experiences were pleasant whereas otherwise, it was horrendous. One of the most prime corporate houses of our times has opened a gaming chain, a concept that was touted to be the next big thing in India, especially after Xbox and PSP3 but it could not pull in the gamers, why? Ah, that formed a huge explanation in my report. It was strange to notice that a section of their target group was one of the factors driving out the crowd from some stores. It is amazing how viewing things from the consumer POV, opens up sections you would have never noticed before. A recently launched mobile service provider wanted to know how the sales were picking up in Maharashtra. It had outlined at least fifty stores, of which around twenty were in Mumbai itself. As an MS, I had to not only evaluate the buying process but also the service of the new sim-card.

                  Some clients want to evaluate their competition and ask for the MS to be sent to select competitor branches, which they have found out are doing better than their best and then, the agency usually benchmarks standard practices. But most clients want to evaluate their own branches, especially in cases of large corporate houses where decentralization has made it difficult to assume knowledge of all happenings. The client is happy and so is the agency as both have scratched each others’ backs and the itch is satisfied.

                     Ah, but why will the MS do it? What’s in it for them? How can their itch be satisfied? Well, the answer is very simple. The MS gets some good recommendations which build a healthy personal brand and of course, a little amount of money that keeps them happy. Apart from that, the MS is usually allowed to keep the products that he is asked to purchase from the client location and is paid for it too. Also, if the MS is evaluating services, no doubt he is allowed to try them out and experience them. Remember, intangibles have no value. So sometimes, the experience can be bliss and some agencies even allow you to take a friend together. It helps if you have a weak memory and you have to remember all the evaluation criteria and at the same time, click a couple of pictures or do an audio-visual recording furtively. Some agencies pay a travelling allowance in addition to, the regular MS fees and recommendation certificates. Working with a good research agency can only boost your career prospects and in this age of complex consumer behavior, being a mystery shopper calls for some looking upto, doesn’t it?

With hugs and kisses to the consumer,
The Young Marketer.



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