How to Become a Successful Mystery Shopper

Any time I tell someone that I’m a mystery shopper, I always get the same response: “Oh that’s neat! How do I get started with something like that?” If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, then take a moment to read on.

I work full-time as a support programmer/analyst and make a decent wage. But with personal expenses mounting and a debt load I’m still trying to get under control, I decided about three years ago to seek out a simple way to augment my income. Cooking is one of my passions and I briefly entertained the thought of picking up a part-time job at a local restaurant but I decided against it. I thought it would involve too rigid of a schedule and knowing a bit how restaurants work, I knew I’d end up working far too many hours than I originally bargained for.

No, I wanted something that had a schedule that was flexible and completely determined by how much free time I wanted to devote. Then one day, I decided to research the field of mystery shopping. This was ideal for me – I could select as many or as few assignments as I wanted. It also sounded like it would involve minimal effort on my part.

My research yielded two results that I’d like to share with you, along with a bit of advice I learned, now having done hundreds of assignments. First let’s go over just how mystery shopping works, so you can understand the business side a bit.

Mystery shopping organizations have a list of clients they sell their services to. These clients agree to pay the mystery shopping companies money for business-critical feedback, normally to obtain customer service-related data on their employees. Other assignments may involve pricing audits (to measure a company up against their competition), restaurant shops to evaluate food quality, or age verification assignments where you are to tell them if you or your guest got “carded.” The spectrum of assignments is wide-I even evaluated the bar staff at a strip club once!

The mystery shopping companies keep a list of these assignments and make them available to their database of “shoppers.” Usually the notifications come across in the form of e-mail, but don’t be surprised if you occasionally get a call from a desperate mystery shopping scheduler, asking you to perform a shop for them. But we’ll get more into that later.

If you find an assignment that interests you, you log into the company’s website and sign up for it. Sometimes you can “auto-assign” the job to yourself; other times you have to request the shop – and you may or may not get it. Every company handles this process differently.

You are given a set of instructions. After performing the “shop,” you must write up whatever documentation is necessary and submit it to the company. Your evaluation is then edited by someone at the company who will either approve it and send it on, or give it back to you for revision.

Once the assignment is approved, it is then sent on to their client and eventually you will receive payment.

Sound simple enough? It is, after you get used to the process. But let’s now talk about some of the prerequisites every mystery shopper needs before they can even think about taking this on as a second (or even a first) job:

1) You must have a very strong work ethic. Most importantly, you must be able to perform jobs when you say you will, and be willing to make a commitment and stick to it. One recurring theme you’ll find while reading through the various organizations’ contracts is that they must receive your feedback by the required deadlines.

Going back to the business side, you have to understand that the mystery shopping companies’ clients give very strict deadlines for submission of data. This all flows down to you because if you can’t be trusted to supply them with the paperwork, it makes everyone look bad and they could possibly lose the account.

2) You must have excellent written English skills. In addition to simply hitting the “spell check” button on your PC, you have to be good at telling a story and framing it in well-developed paragraphs. Because your work is effectively “re-sold” to the shopping companies’ clients, you are in a way, representing them. Even though your work will be evaluated prior to final submission to the client, the less time the editors need to spend on your sheets, the more likely you will be accepted for new assignments.

So you have immaculate written English skills and can keep a promise – great! You’re a good candidate! There are two things you must first do: become certified, and sign up with as many companies as you can find. Begin by going to: http://www.mspa.org/forums. There, you will find the information you need for becoming certified. Certification while not required, will actually greatly increase your chances of landing assignments once you actually are registered with all the various companies out there.

There is a small fee for becoming “silver” certified but you’ll make up the difference after your first few shops. This is about the only monetary commitment you’ll need to make, so it’s well worth it. Take heed – you should never under any circumstances, pay any company to become a member of their shopping organization. If you begin the process of signing up with a place and they start asking for payment, move on!

Second, you need to spend at least a few hours finding and signing yourself up with all the mystery shopping companies. I would strongly suggest starting at http://www.volition.com look for the “Get Paid” button and start digging.

I initially signed myself up with about 30-40 companies but I only receive shopping offers from a handful nowadays. My impression is that some of these companies fall by the wayside because the business is so cutthroat.

Here are some final thoughts on the topic:

While I occasionally pick up assignments from some of the regional/national shopping companies, my most successful venture was with a local outfit that only deals with a few select clients. I found that some these types of shopping companies can be the most lucrative for you to join. Most of the larger players will pay between $8 and $15 for an assignment but with the small company I get anywhere from $25 to $100 per assignment (depending on distance).

It’s with this same company that I’ve had some of my most enjoyable shopping experiences: “shopping” for a brand new Audi and Porsche (and yes, I got to test drive them)! It’s by sheer chance that I found this company so I can’t give much guidance on how to repeat my success with this.

Don’t be surprised if you don’t receive payment right away. Most companies will tell you right from the beginning that payment may take as long as 45 days after the last day of the month your evaluation was submitted. Remember that because these companies are essentially “middlemen,” they must receive their check before they can give you yours.

Mystery shopping could easily become a full-time job if you want it to but it’s not all fun and games. Writing up evaluations on the shops you do can be a time consuming process. Most of the people reviewing work have a low tolerance for inferior quality so be sure to do the best job you can the first time around and learn how to take criticism gracefully. But if you can do all of the things I suggested and you have the drive, you will have a great time doing this type of business.

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