The Grumbling Shopper.

There are many, many discussions at MysteryShopForum grumbling about scoring by one particular mystery shopping company(MSC), and other discussions grumbling about the amount of narrative required for some shops. Sometimes we get both topics in the same thread, grumbling about the amount of narrative required for some shops by that particular MSC with the fussy graders.

I used to take those as warnings. I’d gotten stung a bit by those editors and, as irrelevant as any score above 7 is as long as you get paid, it still stings to get anything but a 10 if you usually get a 10 from all the other MSCs. So I’d avoid that MSC unless there was a lot of money on the line, enough to take the sting out of that 8 or 9. But mostly I avoided them.

Psychologists have a term for it – negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement doesn’t mean that the reinforcement is negative (such as a spanking); it means reinforcement designed to cause a certain behavior to be avoided. Example: a lab rat can get a shock for touching the door of its cage and learn to avoid the door or it can get a reward for going to any other part of its cage, thus avoiding the door. Both are negative reinforcements, because they both eradicate the behavior of touching the door. (Think of that the next time you want to spank your kid for something; both methods work, but rewarding the desired behavior instead of punishing the bad behavior usually works better.)

So we have editors making cryptic remarks about grammar and spelling and “punishing us” (giving the shock) by dinging our grade. To what effect? Not to the effect of getting us to improve our grammar and spelling (which would be positive reinforcement, causing us to spell better) but more to the effect of having us avoid shopping for them altogether, or to shop for them less, or avoid certain shops where we have been dinged in the past, or just not try very hard because we figure we’ll get shocked anyway.

Their desire to improve our performance has instead caused us not to perform at all.

The elusive 10 we occasionally get for a perfect paper (positive reinforcement, they hope) is not a strong enough motivator to try harder because the 10’s seem to be given randomly. We don’t know what we have to do to get the 10, because they won’t tell us what we did wrong to get the 8 or 9, so we choose to avoid the punishment by not doing the job at all. It’s like shocking the rat only some of the times when it touches the door or rewarding it only some of the times when it doesn’t, or, even more confusing, sometime shocking it for touching the door and sometimes shocking it for touching its food dish where the rewards appear. It doesn’t know what it did to get the effect that was dished up. (Lab rats generally become very neurotic when this happens, actually.)

Hmm. It seems to me that if the low grade causes us not to improve but rather to avoid the shops, both the MSC and the shopper lose.
And then there’s the dreaded “heavy narrative” shop. What does this do for us? For most (not all) shoppers, we try to avoid them. The heavy narrative is a punishment for doing what might otherwise be a desirable and fun shop. If we take one of them, we agonize over the time needed to write it, gripe about having to explain what we already answered “yes” or “no,” and chafe at “minimum 500 characters” when we told them what needed to be said in 100 characters. (“I said he didn’t smile, what do I need to explain about that?”)

Put the two together – heavy narrative shop, which already makes us want to run screaming from the room, coupled with the full expectation of getting that electric shock in the form of a lowered grade for not doing the narrative perfectly enough – and you’ve got an unhappy shopper swearing into the night that they will never, ever again pick up that shop for that company and unsubscribing from emails so they won’t be tempted by a bonus and deleting the bookmark so they won’t look at the shop board.

Well, that was me. The only way I could fight back against the perceived unfairness was not to play at all. I started avoiding that MSC. And then a somewhat lucrative shop appeared that I really wanted to do for personal reasons. And I knew it would be narrative-heavy. A double dose of negative reinforcement was hanging over this shop. But so was a $50 fee, and a chance to get information I needed to get anyway.

It was time for an attitude adjustment.

So what if it was narrative-heavy? Look where I’m telling this story! I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake. I was a writer long before I became a shopper. All of a sudden the “unfairness” of a narrative-heavy report fell away. I can tell a story, probably better than most. I’ve been writing all my life. I’m published. (I know many other shoppers are; I’m not bragging, just giving my perspective.) I spent seven years writing for a living once. I have books and magazine articles published. So now I’ll get paid to write by an MSC. How cool is that? And I can get paid to do the research I needed to do for another reason. They want a story, I’ll write them a story!

So I took the shop. And when it was time for all those narrative boxes, I told the story. And I didn’t mince words or count characters or look at the clock. I gave details, I gave anecdotes, I gave descriptions of everything from the pictures on the wall to the smell of baking bread as we passed by the kitchen area. And I proofread — all of it — twice. This wasn’t a $5 fast food shop asking for that narrative; this was a $50 senior living shop.

And two weeks later I took another, took the same attitude, gave the same level of detail. And I didn’t care what score I would get because I wanted to do that shop because I wanted the information for my aging parents.

I got a 10 on both of those shops and glowing praise from the editors.

The shops where I considered the narrative boxes to be a punishment — something to be avoided, something that would only be rewarded with a shock, therefore not worth proofreading twice because that dumb editor would find something to ding anyway – those shops I got 8’s and 9’s on. The shops where I embraced the narrative, and enjoyed telling the story like I enjoy writing these articles for the magazine – those shops I got 10’s.

Maybe it’s not the editors. Maybe it’s the attitude.

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