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Oct. 4, 2011

Mystery Shopping: The Great Debate

By Lisa Iannucci, Contributing Editor

Mystery shoppers are paid to visit a property and act like a potential resident. After the shoppers are done, they complete a questionnaire about how they were treated. The multifamily industry has been using mystery shoppers for quite a few years to make certain their employees were doing a good job, but lately the debate over whether or not the program actually works has heated up.

“We used mystery shopping reports up until about two years ago,” explains Mona Stahling, vice president of national operations at AvalonBay Communities Inc. in Arlington, Va. “We did feel that they were beneficial to us by providing feedback from a training standpoint, but we couldn’t quantify that they led to more leases. It kept our salespeople on their toes, but most knew they were being shopped.”

Stahling explains that salespeople suspect those who set up appointments with specific individuals and those who ask lots of questions that typically aren’t questions that prospects would normally ask.

“We always ended up with disputes—a he said/she said situation,” she says.

Jonathan Saar, vice president of marketing and educational solutions at The Training Factor, says that he’s heard complaints that mystery shopping is being used as a fear mechanism. “Do well on your shop or else,” he says. “However, now we’ve seen a shift in how managers are using a shop score. They are using other data that we offer to see that maybe if a manager had a bad day and scored a 60 percent on a shop, the other data will show that this person is really excelling.”

AvalonBay continues to use mystery shoppers for evaluating new hires after their training, but today the company relies more on electronic surveys. “We have live prospects visiting our properties and now we are getting valid information directly from them,” says Stahling. “Overall, the mystery shopping program is more expensive, and the surveys give us more information, not only about the sales associates, but about property conditions and our competitors.”

Even the mystery shopping business has changed based on these concerns from its clients. Kimberly Nasief Westergren, president/founder of Measure Consumer Perspectives, a mystery shopping consumer feedback firm headquartered in Louisville,  Ky., says she’s been completing mystery shops for property management firms, but now also offers audio and video recording as well as surveys for prospective and current residents.

“The pendulum swings both ways in this industry,” says Westergren. “At one point a store like Kentucky Fried Chicken got rid of their mystery shopping and tried a survey with a phone number at the bottom of a receipt because it was cheaper. It was a good and bad experience because customers weren’t remembering all the details that they were supposed to by the time they did the survey.”

Westergren says that budgets often dictate what services a property management company will use,  whether it’s mystery shopping, surveys, video or audio taping—or any combination.

The AvalonBay surveys are e-mailed almost immediately after the prospect leaves the property. “We have a solid 20 percent response rate,” says Jenna Reichen, senior manager of customer service & communications at AvalonBay. “The surveys ask if the salespersons were professional and courteous, if the consultants promoted services and amenities, and if they visited other communities and how they compare. Using the surveys helps us to focus on revenue management strategy.”

Ask one management company about mystery shopping and you’ll probably get a different answer from the next company with whom you speak. “Every property management company has its own philosophy, and they measure performance on different benchmarks,” says Saar.

Although the discussion goes on, mystery shopping still seems to have a place in the property management industry, but as one of many tools available to evaluate and train staff.

Shopping Tips:

If you are using a mystery shopping service, Kimberly Nasief Westergren, president/founder of Measure Consumer Perspectives in Louisville, Ky., suggests the following tips:

■ If you’re going to be shopped once a quarter, change the schedule so there isn’t much predictability. “Shake it up and do it the first week one time, then the second week the following month, then the fourth week, etc.”

■ The service should make sure that if they are sending a shopper for a Class C or Section 8 property, he/she should arrive in a car appropriate to the area. “Also if the demographic is Hispanic, consider sending a Hispanic shopper,” she says.

■ The shopper should try to run late or forget the leasing agent’s name. “We’re not always exactly on time, remembering the person’s name, so we need to act a little scattered so it looks a little more normal,” she says.

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