Sample Shoppers - Secret Shoppers - Mystery Shoppers

I am working on a downtown strategy for a city. I was talking to the Planning Director about some secret shopping I’m planning as part of my research and he asked me to secret shop his permitting operation in light of some negative comments I heard during confidential interviews with various developers. I’m game to try, but it’s outside of my normal purview. I could probably masquerade as  a developer with some fake project but that might set off the rumor mill and we don’t want that. Once a client gave an empty cubicle within sight of the counter; I became invisible to staff and learned all sorts of things about that department’s notion of customer service. What do you think of that approach?

Any suggestions or places to point us? Or is this just a bad idea given that I lack your kind of expertise and couldn’t follow up with the kind of work you do.

Just Shopping

Dear Shopping,

I very much like the idea of secret shoppers, although it is harder to do for a planning or permitting function than say a restaurant or retail establishment. We often use various techniques in our studies of planning departments and many of these you can do yourself. Here is a partial list and hopefully some of our emailers will add to the list.

  1. We do developer or applicant focus groups, totally confidential and off site. We limit these two eight people for each group. Developers are reluctant to complain since they feel the department will hold that against them. Thus, to be effective these need to be totally confidential – no staff involvement.
  2. We do one-on-one interviews. These are great with elected officials and planning commissioners. Although we sometime use them with developers, we often find the developer input is better from the focus groups.
  3. We do mail or email surveys, generally very useful. These also need to be confidential. We have them come directly to us and they by-pass the department being examined.
  4. We observe counter transactions the best we can but it is hard to not be observed. You could ask a citizen to do this for you. The question is how long did it take to get served, was staff knowledgeable. Was the waiting area clean and up-to date.
  5. Simply walking into the planning department the first day usually gives us a half dozen ideas right off the bat. What is posted on the bulletin boards?
  6. We have used the moments of truth exercise where you trace a transaction starting at the parking lot or on the phone. I described this technique in my ABZs of Planning Management book. This exercise can be done by staff. Working with one organization, I had small groups of five people select a topic. One group selected getting a fence permit. I told them to take their yellow pads and start in the parking lot. There were amazed at how difficult it was.
  7. Checking signs is also useful. Is it easy to find the department? I worked for years to get the LA City Hall to change signs and many are still wrong. Working with a South Carolina community, I followed signs to city hall and ended up at the golf course maintenance yard. Staff said that happens to lots of people – so why not change the signs?
  8. An analysis of the website is easy to do. As I do my national research, I am continually amazed at how out of date or incomplete many of the sites are. The concept here is called “false maps.” Would you rather have a false map or no map?
  9. I often make phone calls to all the staff, how long did the phone ring, were calls returned? The same for emails.
  10. I have seen one or two places try phony permits but this can be tricky. Would take some work but may be worth a try.
  11. Having a citizen that doesn’t know anything about planning come in with some questions can be revealing.
  12. I have used exit interviews on a number of occasions, generally useful.  Staff can’t do this, needs to be an independent third party. Sometimes I also sit down with someone waiting in the lobby and get all kinds of information. 

Keep Shopping.

The Management Doctor


Reader Response

I would suggest asking a staff member from a near (but not too near) city to act as your secret shopper, in exchange for your doing the same for their city. In that way, you not only would have the benefit of their fresh perspective, but you also would have a chance to see what another city is doing better (or worse) than you are.

Barton Brierley
City of Newberg, OR


I would want to think carefully about the downside of baiting my staff with a secret shopper. There are other ways I’d look at first to bridge the gap between code implementation and customer service.

Joe Schiessl
City of Richland, WA

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