I have performed shops in 3 different parts of the US. It has been a great way to learn a new metropolitan area. I have not made a huge profit… but I have helped some deserving people get recognized for performing terrific customer service and had some great meals along the way!

Here are some tips and tricks that helped me get started:

1. Don’t pay for access to information about shops

That’s right… you can get all of the same information for free.

Two great sites are:

MSPA (Mystery Shopping Provider Association)- http://www.mysteryshop.org/

This is the organization that runs the certification programs (more on that in a second). The job posting section gives a great first look at all of the different opportunities… not heavy on detail on purpose… companies are very secretive on the actual chains / indy stores names… you will see ‘bank’ or ‘dinner’ or ‘oil change’ at the public level.

Job Slinger – http://www.jobslinger.com

This site is about a year old and has a wider range of offerings from MSPA and non-MSPA companies.

2. Companies don’t share

There are 2 major software companies that support mystery shopping companies, Sassie and Prophet and they do not share information between clients. Prophet does provide a single log on… so once you
fill out a profile with one you don’t need to fill in the basic demographic information again. There have been some mergers over the last 6 months that have combined some companies and they are really good about pointing out what sister sites you can fill out a profile with to get more offers.

3. What you see is the tip of the iceberg

The public offerings are just a small portion of what is really available. Within each mystery shopping company’s online site there is a wealth of offerings that their existing shoppers perform. Many provide rating feedback on shopper reports and even provide for self scheduling after you have completed a couple of shops with good ratings.

4. How did I get started?

I had just moved to upstate New York (Orange County) and reached out to hardware store, bowling alley and oil change offerings… once I was in the door and had some high rated reports at a couple of companies and all of the sudden I could see a wide range of offerings on their internal job boards.

5. Get a form fill tool, use Inbox rules, and get PayPal.

I happen to be partial to the Windows Live tool bar myself :-)! Any web form fill tool will do. The more companies that have your profile the more opportunities you will get. I am registered at about half of the MSPA member companies… I get about 30 offers a day… I perform about 3 shops a month in the winter and more in the summer.

I am not suggesting that you *have* to sign up at such a large list of companies… but many companies have a 90 day moratorium before you can shop the same location or client again so more profiles really means more flexibility for you.

All companies use very prescriptive subject titles in their messages so filtering in any e-mail tool is really simple… the majority can be handled with a simple “subject contains words mystery and shopping’.

Many companies do not pay by check… and the delay in payment is large and varied… if I shop at a well known fast food restaurant today they will make a deposit on the half month after the first full month after performing a shop… having a wall calendar just to track payments is helpful.

6. Get Certified.

MSPA offers 2 levels of certification…. Silver ($10) and Gold ($99)… Silver is an online quiz… all of the information needed for success is on the MSPA site… only takes about 15 minutes to take. Why bother? It gets you into the first door of filters… when a scheduler has a choice of who to assign a shop to they look at all sorts of factors you can’t control – demographic request of the client, account status (do you have an account at that bank? are you already a client of that spa? do you have gate access at that airport?) and they look at the factors you can control – finishing assignments on time, providing good quality reports, helping with last minute jobs when others flake (don’t warn a scheduler that they can’t complete) and they look at certification level… are you just wandering through their postings and really never have an intention to follow through.

My personal rule was that I wouldn’t pay for the gold certification until I earned enough profit from the silver level jobs for it to pay for itself. It took about 5 months and then I had to wait another 8 months for a local session to be held.

Gold certification is either:

a. A one day in person seminar where schedulers come and meet mystery shoppers and everyone talks about what they want to see more of… how to get on their bad side… what makes a good report… you get a pile of business cards for schedulers in your area and you get a booklet that has the contact information for every member mystery shopping organization in the MSPA.

b. A DVD.

The DVD just came out in 2008 so I didn’t have that option, but I wish that I had done the gold certification earlier… I have received higher $ paying shops faster from almost every company I applied to post-gold certification…. I found about dozens more companies that I didn’t hear about through online searches or MSPA’s job board.

7. Know your limits

I have burned bridges at a couple of providers by flaking on shops… accepting too many shops… not keeping track of all the juggling eggs… not to mention fire drills at work.

I am not comfortable wearing the video equipment to do apartment and real estate shops.

I like doing some reveal shops (do the shop, ask for a manager, give a reward or a certificate of completion) but many are heart breaking… the manager knows that their crew has just blown the chance at a $50 Amex gift card each and they won’t get another chance for a year or more.

I love high end restaurant shops but not with a bar portion attached. The payments can get up to $200 for dinner for 2 in some cases which cover 80-90% of the meal and bar charges. Some require that you sit at the bar for at least an hour and view 5 or more cash transactions… I’m just not a bar person so I don’t do these.

There is a family restaurant with 6 locations in my area that we enjoy going to once a month… I haven’t paid for a meal in 2 years…

There are 3 different oil change chains that have programs in my area… I haven’t paid for an oil change in more then 4 years…

I try to limit the high end shops to once a month… the writing expectation is expansive… and most have a time limit of 10 am the next morning to submit reports… it is not unusual to be expected to provide a paragraph of 5 different aspects of the meal and then an additional page of narrative on the detailed server experience.

Anyone still with me :-)! I have not gotten rich… I have had some amazing meals… and I hope that I have helped some people who work way too hard for way too little money get some recognition!