As any at-home parent can attest, restarting a career after well over a decade can be a daunting task. Not only are you throttled by an enormous hole in your resume, but the very thought of spending all day in an office thinking like an adult, acting like an adult, and just generally doing grown-up things with no freedom or flexibility is not a very appealing image.
I spent the last few years of my full-time dad’ness thinking about what to do when “the time came.” I shuffled through dozens of ideas, none of which included being “scheduled.” Then, one night at a dinner with a group of friends, one person mentioned mystery shopping as a way of getting free stuff. Like everyone else who starts this gig, I thought, “Why not?”
She started me off with Bestmark. I quickly scheduled my first lunch at a tex-mex chain. On a job board full of car dealerships and $3 phone shops, it seemed like the best place to start.
I completed the job with very little anxiety. I wasn’t exactly in it for a lot of money so if it was rejected for whatever reason, the worst I had done was buy lunch for a friend. The scariest part of the job was having to force myself to interact with the manager with no real reason to. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal but apparently the manager was working the line at the time because the kitchen was short staffed. I felt awful asking the waiter to get him because I had a stupid question that I could ONLY ask the manager. I think it was something like, “Hey, do you guys do trivia night?”
Ultimately, I got paid, but the reimbursement didn’t cover the entire bill and I quickly decided that there had to be better companies to work for.
Shortly thereafter, I discovered A Closer Look and the job board was amazing compared to what was being offered at Bestmark. The reason I bring this up is because my interaction with the editor after my first job for ACL was the sole reason I became successful in this business.
As they do for all ACL jobs, the editor emailed me directly with a small amount of feedback. I responded that I appreciated the feedback, mentioned that I was brand new, and asked for any helpful tips she could give.
Now, obviously I didn’t know it at the time but I think it’s safe to say that any other editor would have completely blown this request off. This editor, however, sent me her number and told me to call her.
That one phone call was the most valuable interaction I’ve had in this business so far. Her wisdom was so helpful that I occasionally still reference back to the notes I took that night. You just never know who you’re going to come across in this business. It’s not always an us-against-them situation. I should give her a call to thank her again.
My biggest challenge as a shopper today is finding enough jobs that are repeatable to reach my income goal. When you’re just starting out, you are willing to take any job that looks even remotely interesting. The problem with taking all sorts of jobs is that, although the job may take 20 minutes and the report take another 20, you can easily spend another 30+ minutes trying to learn the guidelines and requirements of the job. You can easily cut your per-job income in half just learning how to do the job.
Once I decided that I wanted to make a bonafide business out of this, I realized that I needed to manage my time wisely. Time spent at home preparing and reporting is still “billable” time, even if it’s done in front of the TV! I wish more people realized that.
The mistakes I make are all in the same vain- PHOTOS. It’s so easy to miss a photo or two when you’re taking 20 pictures of one location. A few months ago, I completed an entire route of about 15 shops and then realized after the first editing response that I forgot to take one single REQUIRED picture at every location. It was a careless mistake, but it’s not something you can talk your way through. Either you have a photo or you don’t. In this case, I had to go back to most of the locations to get that one picture (the MSC was very lenient on the locations that were incredibly far away). It was embarrassing and expensive, not to mention awfully frustrating that I had no one to blame but myself.
Visiting gas stations 10 times a day can get a little monotonous, so much so that I’ve started sending my friends a daily text series I’ve entitled “Overheard at the Pumps.” The most recent one was probably one of the very few that is “clean” enough to write about here: As always, I asked the employee if they had a restroom for customers. Her response came completely straight faced and serious, so much so that I had absolutely no idea how to handle it other than to say, Uhhh ok.” She responded, “We don’t. You can just go behind the ice machine.” Seriously. Just go behind the ice machine.
I considered taking a picture of behind the ice machine and checking off the box that says that the restroom was not fully stocked but I was a little afraid to venture back there. These ridiculous and often hilarious occurrences are becoming so frequent that I may actually start a Twitter account just for this purpose. I’ll let you know if I do.
As you may have gathered, my favorite types of shops are repeatable shop that can be done within an exacting amount of time. I don’t think I would ever want to do targeted shops or shops that require you to make an appointment (including BV’s, which I tried and hated). As much as I strongly prefer revealed jobs or audits, I’m still willing to take on nearly any other job if the price is right.
I remember waking up one morning recently and checking a job board while I was still lying in bed (I know, obsessive much?). Immediately, my eyes were drawn to a bonused shop for a home improvement store that I vowed never EVER to do. The bonus was listed as over $200! Without hesitation I hit that “assign” button before I even took my next breath. I’ve never seen a bonus on this board listed anywhere near that price and a part of me assumed it was a mistake. I even took screen shots of it, just to keep the MSC honest when they tried to claim it was never listed for that much. I should be getting paid for that one any day now.
In my bookmarks, I have one folder that has every MSC I’m signed up with and one folder that has my go-to MSCs. There are over 100 in the main folder and I think 6 in the short list. Top on that short list will always be ACL. Even though I haven’t worked for them in months (their jobs are all pretty far since I moved), they gave me my start and I really respect those people.
A close second is a tie between Maritz and Ritter and it’s all because of the schedulers. Those ladies (and that one dude!) at Maritz are sweet as pie and the editing staff and management are very forgiving and realistic. I love that both of these companies are incredibly approachable and respectful toward their shoppers.
Like everyone else (that hasn’t been randomly deactivated!) I still check in with Marketforce now and then for an easy lunch when I’m traveling but a few companies that I wish I could do more work for but don’t because they don’t have a lot in my area that fit in with my style are HS Brands (Service Sleuth), In-Touch, and Strategic Reflections.
If I had to come up with one phrase that summed up the way I run my business, its “know you’re value and stick to it.” I don’t compromise. I won’t take jobs that don’t meet MY minimum wage. I don’t do this kind of work because I’m passionate about it. I do it because I enjoy the flexibility, independence, and income I generate. Sure, it can be fun at times, but compromising your personal worth is a bad habit to get into just for the sake of having more work to do. I would rather spend an hour at the gym or cleaning the house (Dudes can do that, too. Don’t let them tell you they can’t) than earning what amounts to $5/hr doing an underpriced shop.