Q: Minnesota retailers are focused on delivering great customer service, but don't always find the feedback from customer surveys actionable. Can you suggest other options?

Bruce Nustad, president
Minnesota Retailers Association

A: Customer surveys tend to be focused on an individual experience, which may not reflect the entire service process.

One avenue that retailers of all sizes can use with success involves gathering data on the entire customer service experience by using "mystery shoppers." Many market research firms offer this service, where individuals are paid to shop at the store and record specific aspects of the experience.

While some organizations use this to assess specific skills or actions of individual employees, from a marketing standpoint, this tool can be much more valuable to the organization by finding gaps between the experience that management expects to be delivered overall and what actually happens.

Mystery shoppers are used in every retail environment, from restaurants and convenience stores to high-end fashion retailers and car dealers. The key to success stems from knowing the right elements for the shopper to assess, based on what you know or believe customers expect. This may include specifics such as whether the service person greeted the shopper or exact wait time in line, but also more qualitative things such as store cleanliness and the helpfulness or friendliness of staff.

When choosing a firm to help deploy mystery shopping, you want to engage a firm that does more than simply send people out to experience the store. "Expect your research vendor to closely align the data being gathered to strategic indicators of your customer service success," advised Paul Ryan, president of Golden Valley-based Sights on Service. "In addition, your mystery shopping provider should offer resources to translate the findings into recommended changes to the consumer experience, and probably customer service training resources to close the loop."

This form of customer service evaluation should be part of an ongoing effort to improve or maintain your client experience, so it should be done once or twice a year, with several shoppers at each location.

Mike Porter is the faculty director of the master of science in health care communication at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.