Donna Baker, senior operations manager at SKS Management, uses mystery shoppers as an extra set of objective eyes and ears for the 20 self-storage properties that the Oakland, CA-based company manages in California and Hawaii.
“Mystery shopping is one of our largest programs,” said Baker, who hired Mercantile Systems, a mystery-shopping service based in Brentwood, CA.
“You always want to know what’s going on in the background, because we’re not there 24 hours per day, seven days a week watching all the details,” she said.
Mystery shoppers provide customer service feedback to storage businesses as “undercover” customers. Posing as regular customers, they visit, call or email a storage facility. They also may be hired to “shop” competitors’ facilities to see how a client’s properties stack up.
Shoppers doing site visits might evaluate how long it takes to be greeted, how clean a location is, and how a facility is complying with company standards like dress code and signage.
For “mystery” telephone calls, callers might note whether they were greeted in a friendly manner and how many rings it took for someone to answer the call. If the call went to voicemail, were they called back in a timely manner? Were they given a list of the facility’s amenities? Also, if they contacted the facility by email, did someone follow up?
“A lot of it’s about company compliance,” said Charles Stiles, president of Mystery Shopper Services in Arroya Grand, CA. “Are employees following the company’s non-negotiable standards for the service culture they’re trying to establish? Are they hitting all the key points that would help drive a successful sales transaction and make them different from their competitors?”
Is ‘Mystery Shopping’ Effective?
Mystery shopping programs can be an economical way to help storage owners collect important data. Pricing depends on the type of evaluation, the number of interactions, the specifications and so forth. Typically, mystery shopping is charged on a “per-evaluation basis,” and can range anywhere from $65 for basic service to $300 or more for premium service.
Mystery shopping results have prompted SKS to make changes.
“It taught us that instead of laundry-listing our services, we say, ‘Hi, how may I help you? What do you need? How can we get you the best deal? How can we provide additional services to make your move convenient?’” Baker said. “It’s done a lot for us; it’s helped us with our conversion rates.”
What Are the Drawbacks?
Baker cautioned that there can be a fair amount of turnover among mystery shoppers and that mystery-shopping assessments may lack details.
“If you’re going to grade someone for doing something ‘well,’ what did they do that was above and beyond that made you feel that they deserved that?” she said. “And vice versa, if someone did not perform as well, can you give me a little more detail as to why?”
Self-storage industry consultant Bob Copper said mystery shopping receives mixed reviews among storage operators.
“Like a lot of things, it depends how you use it and follow up,” Copper said. “Some of the cons I’ve heard are that the people who do the calls are almost coaching and asking about things that, frankly, a regular caller wouldn’t ask about. Too many managers almost know when it’s a mystery shopper, because shoppers try too hard to elicit information.”
However, Copper said that if done properly, mystery shopping can be an effective tool to measure customer experience. In turn, that can help a business boost sales and profit.
“The value of mystery shoppers is if you’re investing in training, it’s a way to make sure managers are responding to the training,” Copper said. “Frankly, if you’re doing mystery shops and recording calls but don’t bother to teach managers how to answer the phone, why bother? That’s a waste of money.”
Copper said storage managers often have one shot to land a potential customer.
“On average, the typical self-storage customer calls three to five facilities, and whoever does the best job on the phone and when they walk in gets the business,” he said. “It’s not about who’s the cheapest—it’s about who does the best job.”
Knowledge Is King
Dan Cosgrove, CEO of Mercantile Systems, thinks it comes down to the old adage, “What gets measured, gets done.”
“If you want employees to do something that you’re training them to do, you need to measure them,” he said. “You may hire right and train right, but where it usually falls apart is that measurement. After training, owners say go ahead and they deploy and let them run on their own. Then they come back six months later, and go, ‘Wow, you’re not implementing any of the things we trained you to do.”
Cosgrove is working with a client that recently picked up 20-plus storage facilities. His company did mystery-shopping visits for the client to measure 40 “touch points,” including whether the employee used the prospective tenant’s name. On average, the facilities earned a score of just 61 percent.
“But the good news is if I’m a management company or owner, and I know what I’m doing and I have marketing, sales and measurement in place–and coaching and developing behind that–I can move that needle pretty quickly,” Cosgrove said.