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The Real Skinny on Mystery Shopping

Updated on April 13, 2013

Believe it or not there are plenty of real mystery shopping agencies out there. I know. For years I have worked for several of them. For those who are new to the concept, a mystery shopper is someone who is hired by a company to check out the customer service of or in some way audit another company. The mystery shopping provider is hired by the company itself and in turns contracts with you – the shopper -to check on their client. The amount of money the shopper gets paid depends on the company, the complexity of the assignment and other factors. Jobs can be as simple as contacting a business on the phone to evaluate customer service or as complex as a store audit. They can pay as little as three dollars to as much as 600 dollars per assignment. Again, I know that these jobs are real since I have worked for several companies in the past doing things from visiting and evaluating company websites, to posing a prospective new car buyer to eating at a local restaurant - all on the mystery shopping provider's tab.

How does one become a mystery shopper? There are several steps to becoming a mystery shopper. First, the mystery shopper signs up with a reputable company - preferably an MSPA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) approved member. Then once the shopper provides information about him/herself, he/she is asked to pick a geographical range they can cover. Ideally the shopper should pick a range that is not so wide that he or she would have trouble reaching all of it but it should cover enough territory for the shopper to get a good variety of assignments. Once approved, the shopper then accesses a list of assignments containing information on what the assignment is, how much it pays, what equipment is needed to complete the assignment - e.g., a digital camera. Then, once the shopper commits to a particular assignment he/she completes the assignment and is asked to fill out a survey regarding the job. NOTE: It is a good idea, and in many cases a requirement, to go over any preparatory material before doing the assignment. We are talking about sample surveys and simple reading materials. It's not rocket science. However, it does take some preparation. If you don't do these assignments exactly as required you jeopardize getting paid.

So what is required to be a good mystery shopper? First, you have to be flexible in the types of assignments you can accept. Variety is the spice of life and highly valued commodity when dealing with mystery shopping providers. I have evaluated websites, made phone inquiries, visited car dealerships and gone to miniature golf courses all within the course of a week. Second, you will, as I said earlier be willing to put in a little time going over and remembering the instructions you will need to properly do whatever job you have accepted. Major deviations from the instructions – like revealing that you are a mystery shopper – can cause you deductions to your pay. Third, you need to be able to be believe. This is best done by preparing a bit before you encounter the business. Case in point: I once did a motorcycle shop for one provider where I pretended to want to buy a bike. (I did not even have to test ride the bike.) Before going I learned that the bike actor Steve McQueen used in the 1963 movie “The Great Escape” was a Triumph. This knowledge impressed the owner of the bike shop enormously and made me much more credible as a potential new bike buyer.

So how do you earn GOOD money mystery shopping? First, sign up with several companies at one time. This is critical. The more the merrier. This guarantees that you keep working and that you get as much pay as possible. Working for several companies at once also ensures that you will receive a variety of offers of work. In the past I have evaluated websites, gone to car dealerships pretending to be interested in buying a new car and I have even visited a local casino to evaluate the employees. (Losing at the slots was not their idea but I did.) This assignment paid 85.00 dollars. If you follow the instructions of each assignment and fill in the online surveys in detail the companies will be clamoring to send you to assignments. While working for one company my car was temporarily in the shop. I had several agencies calling me at home offering me bonuses to work particular assignments. You see that is just it: Many people waste their time with the scam agencies and never realize that legitimate companies are dying for hard workers who can manage their time efficiently. Mystery shop providers cherish hard workers as much as any other business does.

Second, is that since these companies have assignments all over the country, mystery shoppers are not available in all these areas. The mystery shopping companies are under pressure to have these assignments completed from the company they've contracted with. In certain regions you have very little to know competition from other mystery shopping agents. This makes your leverage go sky high. I have often taken advantage of the scarcity of shoppers in my area and received bonuses and other incentives for working assignments that the mystery shopping provider is contracted to complete.

Now a few warnings: First, the amounts of money for the assignment vary as I said but generally I have never seen them rise about a few hundred dollars. One company recently contracted me to stay at a pretty high-class hotel for a night. I was paid only 25 dollars for my efforts but the room and all amenities were picked up by the agency. This would have cost me hundreds of dollars. In the case where you have to expend some cost first it is required that you keep all receipts and submit them to the agency – with your report, in a timely manner. Typically, the hotel job would be on the high end of what these kinds of assignments pay. Another recent job I had was to visit a specific dentist for a inexpensive procedure like an x-ray or cleaning and videotape the office (secretly, of course). This assignment paid $200.00. You won't be making a down payment on that home in Beverly Hills as a result of being a mystery shopping, but you will be able to pay some bills and buy a few nice things for yourself.

Second, you should NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER..(Did I say NEVER?), pay for access to a list of mystery shopping assignments or companies. Joining a legitimate mystery shopping company is free - ALWAYS. Shortly after I joined my first mystery shopping provider, I was contacted by a disreputable company wanting to have me pay for access to a list of mystery shopping companies. This is what gives mystery shopping the bad name it has - the scammers and schemers.

So, in conclusion, mystery shopping can be a fun, interesting and profitable if certain precautions are taken and if you are willing to work hard and keep your expectations reasonable. Also working for several at a time increasing your leverage by giving you a variety of assignments to work and increases your experience which is always valued.

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