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Using Mystery Shopping in Testing for Bias



It seems that every day brings a fresh news story highlighting shocking incidents of racial or gender bias in business. Perhaps you remember seeing the news story about the Asian passenger forcibly dragged from his seat on an over-booked flight by police, or read about the group of black teenagers who were followed through a Nordstrom store and accused (without evidence) of shop lifting. Starbucks too, came under fire when a couple of black patrons were forced out after staying too long while white customers were allowed to stay.

It can be easy to simply brush these stories off as mere one-off’s but I think most of us know there is more to it. Many of us have either observed or experienced these types of biases in customer service standards and there is significant empirical data to prove it. Decades ago, TV programs like Dateline and 20/20 sent men and women into auto garages to see how the real or imagined deficit of mechanical knowledge would affect how much each gender group was charged for the same service. The federal government has routinely sent white testers and those of different ethnicities to banks to compare loan rates using the exact same qualifications and validated that ‘red lining’ occurs; better rates and terms for whites than minorities. Patient advocacy groups have frequently studied the level of care provided to groups based on gender and race. In nearly every study conducted significant bias has been uncovered.


More recently, Alexandra C. Feldberg and Tami Kim wrote a fascinating piece on mystery shopping and how it can help check and correct bias in a Harvard Business Review piece entitled, How Companies Can Identify Racial and Gender Bias in Their Customer Service. In it they posit that minority customers, regularly receive worse customer service in ways that are not immediately obvious to onlookers or even managers. One of the methods cited to check comparative service levels involved sending email inquiries to hospitality companies using account names that clearly signaled the senders race and/or gender. When analyzing the responses to these inquiries it was clear that frontline workers were less responsive to nonwhite customers and objectively less friendly and helpful in their reply’s.


Studies like to one mentioned above should cause managers to ask themselves if they know that (as opposed to hope that) their employees are treating all customers equally. How is this being monitored or observed? It can be difficult to take two side by side interactions and compare them as apples to apples. One interaction with a white customer may result in a quick fix, another with a minority client may be lengthy and complex. Just by looking via casual observation alone, not much can be learned. Thus, it can be incredibly difficult for an organization to see if customers are all being treated with the same level of consideration and respect by simply observing behavior or monitoring social media.


So how should organizations work to provide service that is not tinged by any kind of gender or racial bias? Front line management should be the first line of defense when it comes to maintaining customer service standards, but often managers are simply too busy putting out fires to really observe the subtleties of employee behavior. They may not notice that Elizabeth is noticeably less friendly to customers of color, or that Jordan is visibly annoyed when he cannot understand a customer speaking in broken English. Aside from providing diversity training employers can and should consider outside help in identifying instances were bias in providing a service will be evaluated then corrected. Often this is through a mystery shopping program that uses a diverse group of shoppers with a carefully crafted script to maintain an apples-to-apples comparison of the service interaction.


A mystery shopping program can provide the objectivity in comparing service outcomes such as price, returns, acceptance rates, and the like, and it can also provide much needed data in regard to customer perceptions of friendliness, hospitality and willingness to assist. With over thirty years of objective experience, Service Performance Group will create custom evaluation formats specific to each client’s needs and boasts a diverse group of shoppers who can be deployed to complete the assignment. If your organization is considering a project to learn how front line workers perform in serving diverse customers, we would love to speak with you!

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