Richard Walker, director at Mustard, reasons why understanding customer experiences should not be a mystery.

Start typing the word “mystery” into Google, and a range of potential search options emerge.

Mystery “Road” features prominently, and is (I have since discovered) a 2013 Australian crime film written and directed by Ivan Sen (thanks Google, thanks Wikipedia, thanks Ivan).

Aside from this, Mystery Shopping and Mystery Dining feature as two of my suggested search terms.

The thought of a free dinner – for a food obsessed Yorkshireman – fills me with all sorts of wobbly feelings, and I GET the idea of mystery dining. The concept is simple – customers turn up (we assume at a time they would ordinarily eat), ordering what they fancy, eating it when they’re hungry, judging an experience in context, providing feedback that can help restaurants improve all elements of the customer experience.

But what about mystery shopping?

At Mustard, we see many briefs for mystery shopping. And quite often we end up turning them down, challenging them, or offering alternative solutions.


Because a mystery customer brief is often a sign of muddled client thinking.

Firstly, it is built on an assumption that the client (or agency) knows best in terms of what a customer experience should involve, and what perfection should look like, sound like, taste like, feel like.

Our first challenge back will be – “how do we know we are measuring the right things?”.

Secondly, because mystery customer or mystery shopping programmes are often designed with professional “mystery shoppers” asked to play out customer scenarios. They are “acting” as a customer, rather than being in the mind-set of a real customer, on a real mission.

Our second challenge back will be – “how can we ensure real customers are actively engaged in this process?”.

An over-the-shoulder glance into the mystery-shopping-world provides me with an image of a method that is divorced from the reality of understanding customer’s experiences and delivering customer experience excellence. A method that is stuck in the 1980s.

There are several very ways of delivering against the “objectives” of mystery shopping programmes, without having to resort to the old-ways.

One of the new ways is by embedding “mystery customer missions” as a recurring task within market research online communities.

We may ask our community members and participants – on occasions – to be the mystery customer, and we recruit them specifically so that they fit the profile of the target consumer, and can pass judgement on a customer experience because they are a customer, on a real customer mission.

The customers can use shared or private pages within the community portal to share their experiences (qualitatively and quantitatively), sharing thoughts on how they were served, exploring how this aligned with their expectations, role-playing solutions, helping to engineer more customer-centric processes.

Putting the customer at the centre of decisions regarding performance measures seems like simple logic, and the fact that so many mystery customer programmes are delivered without the input of bona fide customers remains the biggest mystery to me.

As an aside, every time I hear the word “mystery” I am thrown into a 80s flashback moment and get an ear worm that only a Spotify induced reminder of how bad Toyah Wilcox’s music actually was will satisfy. For anyone needing a reminisce, here is a handy link.