Sometimes contemplated as troublemakers, sometimes as spies, others think of them as a force of improvement, Mystery Shoppers have largely induced businesses to focus on the quality of customer service by improving their daily doings. Although ‘Mystery Shopping’ sounds more like a term taken from some shopaholic’s diary yet it embodies an entirely unique aspect of certain organizations where they send undercover employees, external to the organization, to their own outlets in order to determine the degree of adherence to customer service standards at their own stores as well as discover whether company’s brand promise is being executed at individual level or not. Such snapshotting quantifies customer service benchmarks as the watchdogs not only shop but they also compile a report, highlighting the good or bad aspects of the service at various touch points through the entire course of business dealing.


Bespoke mystery shopping techniques have been extensively trending around the globe with United States mystery shopping industry reported to have an estimated value of nearly $600 million, experiencing an average growth rate of 11.1%. Europe is more inclined towards embedding the mystery shopping culture in company’s own procedures. Due to its repute of rendering definitive results, the practice is profoundly being taken up by the Middle East as well. Arabian Retail Mystery Shopping was the first local mystery shopping company to be set up in the Kingdom in 2005. Moreover, MENA Mystery shopping services has been trending since 2004. Grass Roots, a marketing consultancy, announced plans to set up largest network of mystery shoppers in the Middle East hence putting the standards of customer service in supermarkets and other customer-focused businesses across the Middle East under the spotlight. “Everybody has something to say about customer service in the Middle East now but customer service levels are slipping,” said Mark Spicer, the General Manager & Client Services Director at Grass Roots. “Big companies know there are problems, but they don’t know how far and wide they are spread“ whether they’re down to individuals or their lack of knowledge.” While the aim remains the same, the Middle East seems to be all set to take customer service standards to a whole new level.

Brand and customer service delivery, when taken together, is what translates into a customer experience. A brand may be perceived a certain way by a store manager, for example, but it may not be carried forward in the same manner by the staff. Mystery shoppers diagnose such loopholes and gaps. “We try to get under the skin of what the brand values really are and interpret them into actions,” says V. Nandakumar, manager of advertising and promotions at UAE-based LuLu Hypermarket Group. Welcoming the arrival of Grass Roots in the UAE, he said, “There are a lot of new brands and players coming into the market and this kind of professional service to analyze their strengths and weaknesses is vital“. He added that feedback from mystery shoppers enables companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “What is the one thing that will draw customers to your outlet and not others? Ambience, branding and promotions, yes’ but definitely for the discerning shopper now, customer service is very pertinent.”

For the most part, the Middle East is colonized with diverse yet transient population hence leaving businesses in a constant lurch as to how to satisfy and retain all the different types of customers. “Some people are here a year, or two years, or three years, and then they go and a new group of people come in with different expectations,” said Robert Keay, the managing director of Ethos Consultancy. The high turnover rate results in lack of staff’s adequate training while companies struggle to keep up with the needs of a constantly changing client base.


Disgruntled mystery shopping reviews have been repressing various sectors of the UAE. The YouGov mystery shopping survey for banking sector brought the fact into attention that while banking staff was polite, they seemed to be unknowledgeable and in need of training. Lutfi Al Shukaili, the head of service quality and performance development for Dubai Bank says, “The moment you land in the UAE, there is a different perception in what makes good service from people who’ve moved from the US or UK versus someone from Pakistan or the Philippines or from the region. What the US defines as good service, other places wouldn’t.” According to him, service requirements differ within the GCC, “How you sell to customers in Ras al Khaimah is completely different than Dubai. The guy in RAK will only want to see one person – and that’s the branch manager.” In order to efficiently deal with the dilemma, companies need to rigorously train employees in a way that they are able to cater to diverse nationalities otherwise failing to adjust accordingly can possibly result in companies’ breakdown. UAE is also facing the challenge of appropriately putting to use the capacities of diverse professionals coming to the UAE. Such workforce only needs to be put in the right direction and the results would be notable.

Well, the predicament is no exception, when only recently a mystery shopping program at Santander Bank brought into light the fact how most customers were denied the service they deserved. In 15% of the cases, the employees did not ask enough questions to make a sound recommendation and in 11% of the visits, the suggestions they made were not appropriate. Some of the problems cited by mystery shoppers included bankers who did not assess the length of time customers wanted to hold investments, determine the risk involved or learn enough about the individual’s needs and financial circumstances. Mystery shoppers’ revelations compelled the Financial Services Authority to take immediate action against the suspected financial service provider which reportedly gave poor advice to secret shoppers who came to bank branches looking for investing a hefty amount.

Getting the service right is welcomed by most of the customers rather than just getting it done. The results of a survey by American Express released recently quantified the business benefits of mystery shopping and revealed the effect of customer service on companies’ bottom lines. Mystery shopping companies were enthusiastic about the study because it reinforced their assertion that measuring and managing the customer experience through mystery shopping can result in a positive ROI. The study showed that majority of consumers spend appreciably more with companies that provide excellent customer service, a finding that suggests investments in customer service can have significant financial returns. Stats of the survey indicated that 70% clients were willing to spend up to 13% more with companies having excellent customer service while 78% opted to cancel the transaction or did not complete an intended purchase due to the poor customer experience. Conversely, three in five Americans would try a new brand or company for a better services experience. Eventually, the survey proved the point that great service can drive sales and customer loyalty.


Customer care centers are commonly notorious for rendering frustrating customer experiences. According to Tanfeeth’s Chief Executive, Suhail bin Tarraf, “A lot of organizations see training staff as a cost rather than an investment,” which is wrong. “Better trained staff in call centers can help to resolve customer complaints and problems quickly“, he added. “Customers expect better and better service every year and as a business you don’t have a choice if you want to be successful, you have to be flexible and put the customer first.” That calls for a change in organizational culture. In order to improve service, staff must be given the leeway to address clients’ complaints instantly. “Lodging a complaint and sending it to the back office, then returning to the customer at a later date is a higher cost than just allowing staff to make a decision to cut Dh50 from the bill,” said Mr Lutfi. “Centers that have 3,000 customers contacting them a day, and I’ve seen centers where there’s a queue and the agent is told to shorten the call to meet monthly targets.” said Faran Niaz, head of service quality at Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank.


Food franchises seem to make most of this technique as 80% fast-food chains have been found to deploy mystery shoppers. Statistics indicate that McDonald’s has employed 13,600 mystery shoppers to make one visit per month, per store in the past 10 years. In exchange for a free meal, mystery shoppers take note of the front counter and drive-through, the speed of service, the accuracy of the order, and the cleanliness of the restaurant. This enables the franchise to find out weak spots, whether it is something related to the menu items or the friendliness of the staff. Career Center Advisor at the One-Stop, Charlotte Hawley says, “Amazing service stays with you and makes a definite and lasting impression,” hence giving companies all the more reasons to work towards offering an amazing service.

The Middle East fast food industry seems to have outshone among the rest. According to the mystery shopping survey conducted by Grass Roots ‘Are you being served?’, over 70% of the staff in the region’s fast food sector scored excellent ratings from consumers. Staff was appraised to have a warm welcoming disposition while attending to the customers as they made the most eye contact and smiled often.


Mystery shoppers who visited car showrooms in the Middle East, however, reported disappointing feedback as 57% of them had to find for themselves a staff member who could assist them further with the purchase and almost one in two (47%) had to wait for more than 3 minutes before getting attended. The survey also revealed that almost half of the sales staff in the automotive outlets had the tendency to ignore customer preferences which is mainly why the customers were least interested to return to the showroom or recommend it further to their friends.


The discovery of insurance frauds at Dubai hospitals and clinics shocked masses when Dubai Health Authority (DHA) started sending undercover shoppers to monitor the Enaya insurance programme. The programme aimed to serve the 100,000 government employees and their families. Dr Haidar al Yousuf, the DHA’s director of funding, did not specify the number of frauds exposed, but he described one case in which a doctor allegedly tried to convince a patient to have an apparently unnecessary surgery that was not covered under the plan. “Health insurance fraud occurs all over the world, and is not unique only to us,” said Dr al Yousuf. “We have three or four lines of defense that we use to monitor the situation, one of which is utilizing our own employees as mystery shoppers. For a physician to change diagnosis to get an OK was a unique case,” he continued. “We want to make sure no bad habits take root from the very beginning. The concept of insurance is still fairly new in the region and Enaya is a very new programme, so it needs to be nurtured and providers must not abuse it.”

Under the health care law passed last year, USA’s Federal officials informed that it would cover more than 30 million Americans. When only recently, alarmed by the shortage of primary care doctors, Obama administration officials started recruiting a team of ‘mystery shoppers’ to pose as patients, call doctors’ offices and request appointments to see how difficult it is for people to get care when they need it. The unnecessary prying offended some doctors though, “I don’t like the idea of the government snooping,” said Dr. Raymond Scalettar, an internist in Washington. ‘It’s a pernicious practice’ Big Brother tactics, which should be opposed.”

Whatsoever, there is nothing better than assessing a company’s performance through first hand experiences and for that reason mystery shopping, whether its east or west, holds a significant impact.


The Middle East transportation sector seems to have geared up for serving the diverse customer base. As according to a recent survey by the Centre for Regulation of Transport in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (TransAD) on ‘Mystery Shoppers’ booking taxis in the capital using the call center number, 96% of mystery shoppers received Taxi within less than 10 minutes, which is a prominent sign of improved customer service. Handling diverse nationalities boarding your vehicle and reaching their destinations in time is nothing but an accomplishment in terms of outstanding customer service. The travel advisors attitude and ability to provide customers with timely information supported by sound product and destination knowledge correlates with customer satisfaction and their overall experience. Companies must focus on continually training, educating, and engaging their staff so service levels are consistent across the board.


Customer experiences differ largely across the globe. In order to bridge the gap, practical measures like Mystery shopping are indispensable. U.S. companies are strong on service with a smile and this flagship store is no exception. Staff approached me more than once to help take things to a fitting room, a real High Street rarity,” tells a shop spy to the Daily Mail on the opening of Banana Republic’s first European store on London’s Regent Street. Similarly, Pret a Manger stands out as a compelling business in UK due to its approach to customer service. Apart from training and motivating its staff, it sends mystery shoppers to every shop each week who give employee-specific critiques, for instance Bill smiled or not at the till. If a mystery shopper scores a shop as ‘outstanding’, all of the employees get a £1-per-hour bonus, based on a week’s pay. Yes, Pret happens to make sandwiches” but the lessons are worth knowing, whatever your line of work is. Starwood recently allowed guest commentary, both good and bad, on its own websites. “Hoteliers read online reviews thoroughly,” Gurtman says. “If they notice a trend there that speaks to a problem, they have mystery shoppers to go in and test it with surgical precision.”

A few other places, however, have not been able to get attentive towards their customers. Being a customer in France can be a humbling experience. The client is not yet king there, infact very far from it. Sales people routinely make it clear that their phone conversations should not be disturbed. If the customer has any questions, he might have to wait until the vendor is finished tidying the shelf. It is not surprising to find the owner of a store complaining how he was unable to carry on with his work because he was kept being interrupted by customers.

Lately, a mystery shopper posted an online blog titled “Confessions of a Hotel Mystery Shopper”, with an aim to bring to light the prevalent customer service standards in the UAE. “The customer service in the Emirates is nothing to write home about. Put a bunch of people together and, sooner or later, talk will turn to the saleslady who was a little too snotty when ringing up a purchase, or the waiter who fumbled an order and never saw a reason to apologize or make amends,” the mystery shopper reveals. The shopper didn’t shy away to share the mistreatment of the customers starting from how she was not allowed to return a purchase made a day before just because the salesperson didn’t feel like it to how she was put on hold by the service provider for close to an hour on having internet issues. “Now that I’ve been living in Canada temporarily for the past few weeks’ and what I’ve experienced in customer service has me dreading how I’ll react the next time I’m wronged as a customer in the UAE”. Although Twitter and Facebook are awash with complaints against the customer service, or lack thereof, provided by Etisalat, Mawaqif, every health-care facility and every bank in the country but for one reason or the other, there seems to be lack of concern on part of the service providers.


So far, mystery shopping techniques have enabled businesses to work on the weak aspects of their customer service and capitalize for greater benefits in the form of loyal customer base. Statistics have shown that as much as 90% unhappy customers do not say anything directly to the service but switch to your competition straightaway whereas 69% of customers leave a business immediately due to poor customer service without a second thought. Repeat business is perhaps one of the most important aspects to a thriving company, therefore mystery shopping plays a vital role here. A US government study shows that consumer research shows that one unhappy customer will tell 8-10 people of their bad experience. Each of those 10 people, statistics show, will tell 5 more customers about the original bad experience. This means that 60 potential customers are actively turned away when one customer is not cared for by your employees.

No doubt, social media has made it easier for businesses to receive customer feedbacks, yet there are certain types of feedbacks that can only be received through the live experience of a mystery shopper. Mystery shoppers provide more details, less biased reviews and can be assigned to test or visit the website at specific times throughout the week.The fact that businesses having online presence need to know if their employees are keeping the common touch with the customers or not, makes it even more meaningful for them to employ such methods.


According to YouGov, an online site that conducts mystery shopping surveys, customer service in the UAE lags behind Europe and North America though it is better when compared to the rest of the GCC. “People coming in from the West, they are traumatized by it,” said Mr Keay of Ethos Consultancy. The UAE needs to take care of all such peripheral things in order to make its mark in providing superior customer service. The findings of the survey also revealed that tourism does well but local firms, telephone and internet companies, estate agents, taxis, insurance companies and municipal service centers have the worst customer service.

Mystery Shopping now represents a billion dollar industry worldwide and is used in countless countries. Going forward with a goal to establish strong benchmark customer service standards for various industries – including auto, aviation, entertainment, finance, health, hospitality, retail, telecoms, travel & transportation or even government organizations – UAE is also aiming to edify its organizations to run the show flawlessly. Since 2009, expert agencies like Ethos Consultancy and Arabian Travel News have been carrying out campaigns like ‘Agencies Uncovered’ to find out how travel agencies across the UAE charge fare when it comes to customer service. Ethos has also launched a new reporting tool named KnowledgeTRAK, revolutionizing reporting capabilities for mystery shopping and surveys in the Middle East. It enables mystery shoppers to evaluate the service quality in terms of speed of reporting, relevance of information being provided, flexibility while dealing with extraordinary situations, clarity of communication and handiness while dealing with nationals speaking different language. The entire evaluation is made over a small payment, hardly costing $10 to $20 for a store’s visit, but the revenue it generates is considerably large. Taking up many of such initiatives is what would pave the way for a definitive improvement of customer service standards. Customer’s feedback is not only important, but critical to success. Today, companies need more than just a good product or service to become successful. Based on mystery shopping survey results, companies are able to develop and deliver training programs that supports their clients in offering a customer experience better than your competitor. The more loyal your customers are, the better positioned you are to survive a downturn.