Secret Shopping for Secret Success

Blayr Barnard Have you ever wondered how your employees treat your customers when you are not around? Would you like an independent opinion on your business? How much would you pay to know what your customers are thinking?

Secret Shopping is one such avenue that can answer your questions. Defined as a way to “measure quality of retail service or gather specific information about products and services”, secret shopping can provide you with valuable insight into your customer’s perception of your business.

Recently, the Southeast ISBDC secret shopped 39 businesses in 2 days to provide some feedback to local merchants. Many small business owners were surprised by the results: employees were smoking in front of their store during open hours or that the interior of their store was perceived as in need of major updating.

Would you buy a large ticket item, say $5,000, from a company that had peeling wallpaper and water damaged ceiling tiles? These small insights into your business could change the reputation of your business. A little elbow grease, paint and ceiling tiles could make that business in need of a grand reopening to show off their clean, new interior.

What do you need to know to start a secret shopping initiative?

  • Be open to the results: If you aren’t going to take the companies suggestions as strategic assistance, don’t waste your time and money. You are using your time and resources, either money or friendships, to get this information – so use it as honest feedback that leads to action.
  • Define the information you want: You can’t test or change everything at once. Pick some areas that you specifically want information. This will change based on your industry, but here are a few ideas:
    • Store Appearance – Exterior
    • Staff – Customer Service and Appearance
    • Products – Selection and Presentation
    • Space Appearance – Interior
    • General Comments
  • Define your budget: This technique can be inexpensive or very expensive depending on your wants and needs. Make a budget and stick to it. Consider the following ways to save:
    • Contact the ISBDC to help prepare the budget
      • The ISBDC can assist with setting up the actual secret shop as well
      • Take a look for more info
    • If you cannot afford any budget:
      • Contact your Chamber to see if it might be a Member Benefit
      • Make a plan to have friends become secret shoppers for a small fee
      • Network with other businesses to secret shop each other’s stores
  • To tell or not to tell: Telling your employees could skew the results because they will be on their best behavior during the test time. Not telling your employees could lead to an upset employee who feels they were unfairly tested. Consider this decision closely as it will make an impact on the results. If you make performance improvement and reviews a part of the organizational culture, your employees will always know that they are subject to being reviewed whether by the owner, customer or secret shopper.
  • Review the results and TAKE ACTION: The action part of your plan is the most important. If someone wrote that your front door sticks, get it fixed. If your store smelled of smoke, light some candles. No matter what the feedback, take it to heart and take action to improve your business.

The old adage perception is reality is true. If your customers view your store as out of date or having bad customer service, they may be driving up to 30 minutes to a competitor, as was the case with one of the stores we secret shopped last year. Find out what your customers think about your business through secret shopping, but before you waste any time or money, contact your local ISBDC to set up a plan of attack to improve your business!

Blayr Barnard is the Regional Director for the Southeast Indiana Small Business Development Center, an organization with the mission of having a positive and measurable impact on the formation, growth, and sustainability of small businesses in Indiana, and to develop a strong entrepreneurial community. Blayr can be reached at

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