A reliable assessment tactic used for years by banks, restaurants, and hotels, mystery shopping has exploded on the healthcare scene in recent years. Although many healthcare organizations measure patient satisfaction, that data doesn’t always paint a clear picture of their strengths and shortcomings. While surveys do a great job of providing the broad strokes of the patient satisfaction picture, mystery shoppers can often fill in the fine details.
Healthcare mystery shoppers are educated, experienced consumers who anonymously evaluate the customer experience with healthcare organizations and individual providers. They are trained to observe specific details during their encounters with the organization and use objective criteria to evaluate those details.
Because of its ability to produce a true-to-life picture of a customer’s experience, mystery shopping has the potential to be one of the most valuable tools in your patient satisfaction arsenal. How can mystery shopping complete the patient satisfaction picture for you?
Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
Above all, mystery shopping helps you understand your customers’ experiences from their points of view. Mystery shoppers are keen observers. The average patient who takes a seat in the physician’s waiting room probably isn’t using a stopwatch to time how long it actually takes before he’s escorted to an exam room. The mystery shopper will not only know exactly how many minutes he was waiting, he’ll also report on what kind of reading material was available while he waited, how staff members kept those in the waiting room informed of wait times, what could be overheard from the reception desk, and how close the nearest restroom and drinking fountain were.
Essentially, mystery shopping in healthcare takes a couple of steps beyond a typical patient satisfaction survey. By the time a patient receives his survey, he may have already put the healthcare experience behind him somewhat and may have trouble recalling details of how courteous his nurse was or whether the room temperature was a couple of degrees lower than comfortable.
Mystery shoppers, on the other hand, know exactly what they’ll be observing before they even initiate an encounter with a healthcare organization. They’ve planned their visit, including the nature of their healthcare concern and can therefore spend more time objectively assessing their experience.
During their experiences, mystery shoppers follow a feedback form with criteria developed in part by the organization being “shopped.” When developing questions for a mystery shopper to answer, the organization should know what it will do with the answers to those questions.
In other words, are you willing to take a hard look at your organization based on the mystery shopper’s work? Do you have a plan for how you’ll implement changes? Can you establish measureable, objective criteria for the shoppers to follow?
Typically, mystery shopping criteria are based on an organization’s existing customer service standards or other quality measures. However, mystery shopping criteria are presented in concrete terms. Instead of “Did you feel welcomed by the organization?,” mystery shoppers will scout answers to questions such as, “Did someone greet you within 30 seconds of entering the door?” and, “When calling to make an appointment, was the phone answered within three rings, and were you offered a same-day appointment?” Mystery shopping can also be used to assess if referrals are made within your system or if staff are sending patients outside of the system for care.
The answers to such questions can target specific opportunities for staff training and coaching.
Because of their detailed nature, mystery shopping results can be very effective in creating better trained employees who provide better service to customers.
Concrete Examples Tell the Story
Using mystery shoppers is also a great opportunity to involve staff members and strengthen the bonds that employees have to the organization. Many organizations opt to tell the staff in advance when implementing a mystery shop program, even soliciting their input on the development of the shoppers’ criteria. In doing so, the employer reinforces standards and makes the evaluation process transparent.
Feedback from mystery shoppers is a compelling way to reinforce to staff the data from patient satisfaction surveys. The concrete, detailed stories shared by mystery shoppers often help move that information from the head to the heart, stimulating the desire to care for others and make meaningful changes for them.
Once mystery shopping has been completed, sharing the results with the entire team and seeking their ideas for how to act on the results is a great way to implement effective change. Build buy-in by having the specific staff involved in each question address those changes. For example, if the mystery shopper reports a poor experience with lab staff, the lab staff should have an opportunity to hear what their customers’ are experiencing and give input on how they can turn those experiences around.
Bringing the Mission to Life in All Encounters
Mystery shopping done right will evaluate how well your team members are living the organization’s mission, vision, and brand promise in their daily lives. Regardless of where the shopper’s encounter with your organization takes place, staff should be consistent in bringing your mission to life. For that reason, it is wise to deploy mystery shoppers to several points of access. This can mean mystery shopping outpatient services, ambulatory centers, medical practices, urgent care, and emergency services.
In-person mystery shoppers can present as either patients or visitors to your organization. Patients will use real-life situations tailored to each particular area of your organization, from a physician’s office, emergency department, to inpatient and outpatient settings. These mystery “patients” may have another mystery shopper accompany them as a family member in order to supply additional details from that important point of view.
Mystery shoppers who are visitors to your facility can provide general impressions about wayfinding, atmosphere, and housekeeping. They may spend time in public areas, listening and observing staff and other customers.
Phone-in mystery shoppers will have different criteria than in-person shoppers but are able to glean a number of important details from a phone call to your switchboard, call center, or office. How many rings it took to get an answer, how many times they were transferred, how long they were on hold , how soon they could schedule an appointment–all of these details can shed revealing light on customer experiences.
Finally, mystery shoppers can also describe consumer experiences with your organization’s website. Oftentimes, your webpage serves as your customers’ first impression of your organization. The ease of navigation and general usefulness of the site are all ways in which customers will judge your organization. Did the site offer directions and maps? Were phone numbers and hours clear and easy to find?
Outsource or Do It Yourself?
Many organizations opt to do mystery shopping on their own. Using volunteers or teams of staff members, they conduct mystery shops of other departments. The main advantage of doing their own in-house evaluations is the cost. The objective outside viewpoint from a professional mystery shopping firm helps to streamline information from multiple sources into a consolidated report summarizing the common threads identified from one point of entry to another.
No matter which method or point of access you use, the mystery shopper’s report provides you with the fine details of customer experience that can help move your organization from good to great.