When The Rules Don’t Apply.

As shoppers, we all have our favorite shops and we sometimes get frustrated by the rules that are imposed, either a rotation time, an age restriction, or something that seems totally out of the blue to us, but is something the client deems necessary. Also, as experienced shoppers, we tend to tell newbies who wonder what they did wrong on a shop that causes them not to be paid, “Did you read and follow all the rules?” But are there times when the rules can be broken?

There’s an old saying, “It’s easier [or better] to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” I do not advocate that strategy for any mystery shopper. But there are times when the rules can be broken. The trick is knowing when and how to ask. I’ll illustrate with several instances from my few years of shopping experience. Although the following stories are true, names, locations, and certain details have been changed to protect all the parties involved.

For the most part, I enjoy bank shops where you go in to ask about a new account. They tend to be easy and not very time consuming. And the reporting generally is yes/no questions with a short paragraph or two of narrative. I received an email from a scheduler who was in a bind. It was nearing the end of the month and three shoppers had flaked on five bank shops. She wanted to know if I could pick them up. I looked at the list and entered the locations on Microsoft Streets and Trips. I looked at the route. I would have to be at the first location, three hours from me, when they opened their doors so I could be out in time to catch a ferry. If I missed the ferry, there would be no way I could finish the route in one day [some 575 miles of driving]. Also, the MSC was not able to offer a bonus to get the shops done. The shops paid $25 each so I knew that I would cover my gas and meals, but from the practical side, this was a big money loser. Also there was a restriction that a shopper was limited to five banks each month and they could not be shopped between 11AM and 1PM.

Any sane shopper would probably run from this. Well, I’ve never been accused of being sane. I went to the bank’s website and saw they had 40 other branches. I mapped out a route for those shops and realized I could do them with two nights on the road, IF the MSC would remove the number of bank restrictions and the time restrictions. I returned an email to the scheduler saying that I could do the shops, but that I would need to have the time and number of location restrictions lifted and that I would need to be able to do the remaining 40 branches next month, again with no restrictions. I got a reply that they would need to see that I could write as if I were different people. I accepted the route, with the understanding that I would do these reports in four different styles of writing. I did it, they were accepted, and the next month I was assigned the remaining 40 branches. It was one of the few road trips where I brought my scanner, as well as my camera, along. I scanned some of the business cards. Others I photographed either with no filter, a red filter, or a yellow filter. I thus had four, apparently different, styles of images, and I did the reports in four different styles of writing, matching the style with the picture. By styles of writing, one I did with ordinary words. The second person I used the thesaurus to create a more precise word image, the third person was extremely picky, pointing out a single fingerprint on the door, while the fourth person commented on the interior décor of the bank, and whether it made them feel welcome. I call it “controlled schizophrenia.”

Another shop I enjoy is a retail shop for a surf/sports shop. It has a 90-day rotation. The scheduler and I have a dance that we perform this time of year; it becomes hard to fill the shop because of the rotation. I get the email for the shop the first week of the month. I did the shop back in October, so the rotation would need to be lifted. I reply to the email letting her know I’m available, and that the rotation would need to be waived. I don’t get any answer. That’s okay, I just sit back and relax because I know the dance, just like she does. About December 15th there’s another email for the shop with a small bonus attached. I remind her that I am available. The day I’m writing this, [December 29] I get another email offering a larger bonus because the shop has to be completed by the 30th. I email the scheduler again and voila…the rotation has been lifted. I’ll fit the shop into my schedule tonight and I got an extension on the reporting until tomorrow because I have two other shops this evening. We’ve done this dance for three years now. I won’t do this shop in the summer because the store is in a tourist shopping center and it’s not worth fighting the traffic to get there. But in the off season, it’s a shop I don’t mind.

And then there’s the times that the rules won’t be bent, come hell or high water. I’m thinking specifically of my favorite bank shop that is going away with the new year. A new MSC is doing the shops because of a merger and I have discovered that they are sticklers for the rules. No one shopper can do more than three locations in a day and a shopper is limited to ten branches a month. I won’t be touring the state anymore doing 40-60 branches in three days. I’ll mostly be confined to the local offices, although if I get a video route elsewhere in the state, I might get to add a branch or two.

The point of these stories is yes, the rules can be broken on occasion, but it’s not the shopper’s prerogative to break them. The shopper can ask if they can be broken but it is up to the MSC to make the decision. We just need to learn to ask. After all, the worst that can happen is we’ll be told “No”…and guess what, the sun will still rise the next day.

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