Overview: In 2000, Elaine Moran founded Mystery Shoppers Training Group, which offers basic mystery shopping classes at over 30 community colleges throughout California. In addition, Elaine has written a book, “How To Become a Mystery Shopper”. The book is both a comprehensive guide and a great resource for beginning mystery shoppers.
MSM talks with Elaine Moran:
MSM: In the mid-1980s, you taught business classes at West Coast colleges and somewhere in the mid-1990s you began mystery shopping. What was the catalyst to start mystery shopping?
EM: I worked full time as a corporate manager, but also worked part time teaching classes on business procedures. I taught at several community colleges. One day, while looking through a women’s magazine, I saw an ad about mystery shopping. At that time, there weren’t the scads of scams that are so prevalent today, and I was not concerned about replying to the ad. (I caution everyone now to be very careful of answering ads without further research.) I was accepted as a mystery shopper for a company in New York. I loved the idea of helping to improve customer service. My first few jobs were so much fun that I also got my children excited about doing it and we became a family of mystery shoppers.
At that time, which was before the popularity of computers, we did our reports by typewriter and mailed the completed reports to the mystery shopping company (MSC). Unfortunately, the MSC went bankrupt and my family and I were left out in the cold. Years later, a friend told me she worked for a mystery shopping company that was in need of shoppers; the company was called ShopNChek. I decided to try it again. Scheduling was done by telephone and the typewriter was still being used for reports. Along the way, ShopNChek became Market Force; a company for which I still work and highly recommend.
MSM: By 2000, it appears you switched your focus from teaching college business courses to teaching mystery shopping classes. Can you take us through the transition and also explain how you kindled an interest in the community colleges for such a course?
EM: I decided to propose a mystery shopping class to one of the colleges where I was teaching business courses. They thought it was a great idea. I developed a class that was held over a three-day period, which included mock mystery shops. I prepared handouts and the students loved the class.
As years elapsed, and I no longer worked my full time job, I made proposals to more and more colleges and eventually ended up with over 30 schools. The handouts evolved into a book and the class structure was modified, from a three-day class to a three-hour class. We pack enough information in those three hours to give everyone a head start on applying and writing reports. On average, up to 1,000 students attend the classes each year.
As a result of the classes, I also began giving talks about mystery shopping at various other venues; such as cruise ships, women’s organizations and libraries. This enables me to reach a lot more potential shoppers and, in an hour talk, they get just enough whet their appetite and to get them excited about exploring mystery shopping as a viable income source.
MSM: We watched an excerpt on youtube.com of the introductory portion of one of your well-attended classes. The students all seemed enthralled, with dollar signs dancing in their eyes and, although you stated, (as beginners) they should expect shop fees in the $10.00 range to the $0.00 fee/reimbursement-only dining shops, their enthusiasm did not appear to wane. How are you or the community colleges able to attract such an interested and enthusiastic audience for a one-day class? What is the draw?
EM: Everyone loves the idea of being a spy. The term mystery shopper is a button-pusher. My students range from college age to senior citizens, from professionals to stay-at-home parents. At the beginning of each workshop, I ask the students why they took the class. Their answers run the gamut; they include working flexible hours, improving customer service, earning additional income and enjoying new and challenging situations. My happiest moments are when I receive emails, letters and cards from students, relating how mystery shopping has positively impacted their lives. I am thanked time and again; who could ask for a better reward?
MSM: If we enrolled in one of your classes, what exactly could we expect to learn? Is there any practical experience, such as in writing narratives or simulating an actual shop?
EM: We no longer offer mock shops as part of the class. During the first part, we focus on determining the difference between phony mystery shopping come-ons and legitimate companies. Right now, there are so many scams, especially in the mystery shopping industry, to the point that many people are afraid to search the Internet, for fear of signing up with a disreputable company. For instance, a legitimate company does not charge you to become a mystery shopper, so that in itself should raise a red flag. A legitimate company has a website and does not request your credit card number. Perhaps, most importantly, and we stress this, a legitimate company does not send you unsolicited money in advance of doing the job.
In summary, the students leave armed with information about how to write an objective report, how to understand and follow guidelines, how to schedule their time and how to organize their paperwork. We review “dos” and “don’ts”; I offer suggestions about how to remember details; and I emphasize the importance of submitting accurate and complete reports. Discussion also involves the industry as a whole and the important role mystery shopping plays in improving a company’s bottom line, by providing objective measurements of service delivery, of associates’ knowledge and, if appropriate, customers’ impressions.
MSM: Your book, “How To Become a Mystery Shopper” is jam-packed with information for the beginner shopper. For example, it explains the application process and discusses report writing and even includes a sample narrative. A variety of sample evaluations are shared and understanding guidelines is discussed in detail. The back of the book contains a directory of mystery shopping resources, such as mystery shopping companies, associations and websites. Of course, we were quite intrigued by the chapter titled, “Mystery Shopping Secrets Revealed”. If you will, please share some of the revelations with our readers.
EM: Interviews were conducted with principles of several large mystery shopping companies.
They talked about what they are looking for when considering and accepting a shopper. One of the major “secrets,” is the importance of viewing the application as a job interview. You want to shine! Those who take shortcuts or fail to answer all of the questions or use poor grammar, simply, will not be accepted. This is the most important first step toward this new and exciting career of mystery shopping.
“How To Become a Mystery Shopper” is used as a workbook during class, since it has step-by-step instructions that are easy to follow. The main difference between just reading the book and taking the class is that the class adds another dimension. Students can ask all the “what if’s” they can think of and we discuss real life solutions. For example, what happens when you go on a shop and it’s the wrong address? What do you do if you don’t understand the guidelines that are provided? What happens if you get sick the day of the shop? Or if your computer crashes while you’re writing a report?
MSM: We realize that women are often sensitive about revealing their age, however you have given us permission to share with readers that you are “a senior citizen”. In addition to continuing to mystery shop and with your mystery shopping classes scheduled pretty solidly throughout the first quarter of 2015, we just learned you are also teaching a new class, “You’re Retired…Now What”. How in the world do you keep up this pace?
EM: I have to admit that I am a very senior citizen and am fortunate to still have some of the energy of a younger person. I have always been active and involved in work, charity, and friendships. My husband plays a major part in everything I do. Without his support and assistance my time and energy would be much more restricted. The new class on retirement has been a lot of fun. Can you imagine how wonderful it feels to be able to help others have a more meaningful life, no matter their age or handicap?
MSM: Elaine, thank you for squeezing us into your busy schedule. It’s inspiring to hear how you took “a good idea” and turned it into a fulfilling career!