Association creates new standards for mystery shopping industry
Written by Jen Chamberlain
Though mystery shopping has been used for over 40 years, only recently did the industry band together to form a trade association. Established in October 1998, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) already boasts a membership of more than 85 mystery shopping service providers around the world.
"MSPA fills a void that has existed in the industry for years," says Mark Michelson, MSPA president. "Mystery shopping providers have long needed to unite to standardize industry practices and educate clients, providers and shoppers to enhance our business effectiveness."
Michelson, president and CEO of Michelson & Associates, Atlanta, and Michael Bare, CEO of Bare Associates International of Fairfax, Va., initiated efforts to found MSPA in late 1997. They held a conference in February 1998 for mystery shopping providers to discuss common issues and challenges. The response was overwhelming. "We hosted 120 representatives from over 70 companies. The presence and involvement of these companies at this conference told us that MSPA was indeed the organization many industry professionals were needing for their business," says Bare.
Since then, MSPA has been running at full steam. Due to the hard work of the ad hoc membership committee, and particularly of Gene Jones, president of Market Image of Tallahassee, Fla., the association began with over 85 members. The foundation for the non-profit MSPA was formally established at a meeting in Dallas in October 1998, where the group defined its statement of purpose and primary goals.
One of MSPA’s initial priorities is to address problems created by misleading advertising. Certain companies and individuals have placed classified ads or posted e-mails enticing would-be mystery shoppers with headlines such as, "Earn Thousands While Shopping." These ads exaggerate potential income for mystery shoppers and are nothing more than solicitations to sell consumers lists of companies that may or may not need mystery shoppers. MSPA is working diligently to defeat such practices. "These advertisers are the bane of our profession," Michelson says. "Advertisers using these tactics have eroded the positive image and benefits of mystery shopping, and make it extremely difficult to recruit quality shoppers."
The association is currently drafting a code of professional ethics and standards for the industry that will encourage fairness and enhance professionalism. "One of the challenges we face is the definition of the various uses for mystery shopping, and how companies should be qualified to provide such services," says Michelson. "In addition to developing our own industry standards, ESOMAR [The European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research] has invited us to provide input for their new guidelines for mystery shopping, as it applies to marketing research."
Due to misunderstandings of how mystery shopping works and resulting abuses of the service in the past, several states have enacted laws requiring the licensing of shoppers as private investigators. "MSPA believes integrity investigations of employees using anonymous resources should require private investigator licensing in certain cases, while other uses of mystery shopping, such as service evaluations or operational auditing, should not," says Michelson. "Many clients are simply seeking the point of view of the average customer. Such customer-focused clients use mystery shopping reports as training tools to improve customer service, not as evidence to fire employees."
Government relations, marketing guidelines, client and staff education, recruitment tips, and project management guidance are some of the issues MSPA will address in 1999. Another focus for MSPA, through use of the member directory and Web site, is to provide exposure for members and increase their new business opportunities.
Another important aspect of MSPA is its global scope. MSPA already has many international companies among its membership. "The practice of using mystery shopping as a tool to improve customer service is in its early stages in Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East. We have the foundation and resources to promote our ideals to a worldwide audience," says Michelson. "MSPA has already been in contact with companies from around the world, including China, Egypt and Argentina."
In November, Michelson and Bare also met with representatives of ESOMAR and several European mystery shopping companies. MSPA plans to host a joint conference with ESOMAR in 1999 in Europe regarding international mystery shopping. "We are looking forward to working closely with other associations interested in promoting a credible resource for information on the mystery shopping industry," Michelson says.
The 1999 Annual International Conference will be held in Phoenix in mid-May. This conference will provide attendees with networking opportunities and educational workshops focusing on marketing, independent contractor utilization, technology updates, vendor relations, and legal education. Anyone with an interest in mystery shopping is welcome to attend this networking and education-focused conference.
"It is our goal for all companies that provide mystery shopping services to third-party clients to join MSPA," Michelson says. "By getting in on the ground floor, every member has an opportunity to implement change and improve their business, their industry, and ultimately, their bottom line."