Just the Facts: Keeping Opinions Out of Your Reports

If you want to write high quality mystery shopping reports, one of the best skills to develop is the ability to communicate factual information, while keeping opinions out of the report.

On Mystery Shop Forum, members frequently ask about a certain type feedback from a shop: The editor stated their report was opinionated. In other words, the shopper supplied opinions where facts were required.

The common and correct response is the shopper should have provided facts rather than opinions. It seems easy to do, or is it? Perhaps the way we use opinions as facts clouds the issue so that people think when they say the bathroom was nasty, or the server rude, they are stating a fact, not an opinion. Therefore, the first step is to understand the difference.

Opinion: A belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty. (dictionary.com)

Fact: something that actually exists; reality; truth: (dictionary.com)

There is a difference between the two, but people often use opinions as facts. The first example where this occurs is public review sites like Yelp. Reviewers sometimes write comments like “amazing food,” or “that place is perfect for everything,” without elaboration.Statements such as this are how they feel about their experience, not how everyone feels about everything there is to experience. One can learn to separate the opinion from fact by looking for the grounds to support a statement. If a comment is that the service was slow, ask, “How slow?” If more is required state to how slow it was or why it was that way, you have an opinion. Better to say, “The waiter came to our table 72 seconds after we sat.”

Are opinions passed around as fact? For this example I take you back a few years to the criminal O. J. Simpson trial. For those of you who don’t remember, Simpson was tried for the horrific killing of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. But I’m not speaking about the crime, rather the attention given to the trial. It was a big deal, sort of like the Olympics. There was lots of media attention. It was broadcast live on cable TV and many people watched. Local and national new programs often reported on it daily. Late night talk show hosts made many jokes about it. Somewhere along the line people started referring to it as a circus, often delivering that word with lots of venom. At the time, I worked in a law office in California and I would often hear people use that word as if the trial or the system was the root of all evil (apologies to Lewis Black). But the trial went longer than the Olympics, much longer. After a while, I had an idea.

Whenever a person would call the trial a circus, I responded by asking a question. “If you had a magic wand and could wave it to change anything at all about the trial or system, what would you do?” The first person gave me a blank stare. Yes, a deer-in-the-headlights look. Even after thinking about it he had no answer despite the ‘fact’ everyone knew it was a circus. The second person did the same. As did the next 29 people until someone gave an answer. By then, I knew people were just repeating the word ‘circus’ to describe the Simpson trial without any facts in their mind to support it.

If your report says something like the following, your editor cannot ask why the bathroom was “disgusting,” or “the worst you have ever seen seen.”

“The walls had numerous graffiti tags on the walls and mirror. The sink had brown crusted film around the drain. The floor had yellow liquid near the sink and toilet. The toilet had dry, brown-crusted material on the seat. The air had a powerful smell of excrement.”


For my next example I will cautiously dive into the world of politics without ruffling any feathers. I hope. Think of any contentious issue in Washington today. When a politician speaks about it, he or she will often repeat their party position on the issue. I recall a Congressman being questioned on an issue that many people were talking about. He was asked what his constituents were saying about it. His response was that the people that contacted his office were on one side of the issue. Of course, that side was consistent with his party’s line on the issue. Fact or opinion? Because it is certain his office received communications on both sides of this hotly debated issue that makes his answer an opinion, and a biased one at that. We see this in sports, religion, or other areas of society. We often turn to talk show radio or TV shows for a steady diet of opinions. Thus, we often blur the line between fact and opinion. As mystery shoppers we need to give the facts, all the facts.

“After a 93 second wait, the server came to our table. She made eye contact but did not smile as she asked if we had decided on a drink. When I asked if any drink specials were available, the server told us that a drink menu was on the table. An awkward pause ensued as I paused, looking at her without turning to the drink menu that was on the table. The silence was broken when she said, ‘I’ll be back when you decide.’ Without waiting for a response, she quickly turned and left the table. She acted in an abrupt and speedy manner. The server did not greet us, introduce herself, welcome us to the restaurant, point to the drink menu, offer a specific recommendation or say anything else at this time.”

If a report provides facts without bias or value judgments, the reader can deduce not only that this server was rude, but exactly how she was rude. Such a report has much more value to the client than just saying she was rude. With such reporting the restaurant manager can better train or coach this employee. Challenge the words in your reports. Ask how and why the comments in your reports are are correct. Even if you are repeating something everyone ‘knows’ as true, if what you say does not give the reader certainty, you probably have an opinion.


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