Tyranny of the secret shopper

In my work as a Customer Service Assistant at our local convenience store my colleagues and I were constantly vigilant for the coming of the ‘Secret Shopper’. Some random punter who would quietly walk through the door when we were up to our eyeballs in work, serving queues of people all in a rush about their own business. The secret shopper would expect to be noticed, handled with extreme care, greeted and charmed and somehow whizzed through the process at a predetermined speed despite the real and undeniable constraints imposed by the un-secret shoppers!

Heaven forbid we fail the test and the secret shopper found us all wanting. A low score would reduce our annual bonus, land us in trouble and generally ruin our day despite the consistent service we had already given to thousands of other ordinary customers. What troubled me was, who in the world was the ‘secret customer service provider’, the ‘secret checkout girl’, the ‘secret pump attendant’, the ‘secret teacher’ there to keep an eye on the behaviour and manners displayed by the model client, the model customer, the model student and or the recipient of any such service. More importantly what are the penalties to be imposed upon the inadequate customer?

The majority of customers I had to deal with were very pleasant, well-mannered and grateful for the service delivered even when I knew myself that I had not been on top form. It may well have been the case that the previous customer had unbalanced my equilibrium through rudeness, impatience or sometimes just wanting to talk at length despite the queue forming behind him or her. Simple things can easily diminish your focus after any three-hour non-stop shift and a lack of variety in any job can numb the brain. I think we all know that and then innocent mistakes can be made. I am not one for monotony and struggle through the repetitive. Whereas others are brilliantly adapted and should be commended for that and paid extra.

It is also interesting to make note of those customers who are constant in their demeanour and those who easily fall prey to external stimuli and forces. A hard day’s work, a missed appointment, a little too much to drink and yesterday’s gentleman turns into a painful bore or an excruciating know-it-all. I had one irate man explaining to me once, how best to ring through his items on the till as if six hours practice that evening had not been enough for me learn. The next day when the smell of alcohol has disappeared he was as pleasant as pie and made no further mention of my shortcomings.

Dementia, tourets syndrome, hearing loss and other disabilities are never immediately apparent and this is where a good shop assistant distinguishes himself from the bad and indifferent. It is the customers service assistant’s skills of perception which need to be constantly honed and improved to avoid embarrassing faux pas; shouting at the deaf, being impatient with the old, treating kids like… well kids or worse still, potential thieves and not bona fide customers.

I recall with great clarity the sequential questioning that caused so much dissatisfaction among so many shoppers and one’s attempts to cleverly discern for each individual customer the necessity of each question. For example, the average beer-swilling twenty-year-old had severely limited interest in his right to Trading Cards aimed at primary aged kids and few trendy looking students wanted to admit to having a superstore loyalty card. Some crafty old souls would simply shout No! No! No! No! right at the beginning of the transaction in wily anticipation of my usual patter and then discover they had to pay in cash and not on their card since the Trading Card and its attendant question had been discontinued the night before.

The endless questions finally became a quiet source of mind games and mental fun for me. Similar to a one-man game of chess or spot-the-odd-one-out. By thoroughly sizing each and every customer up and down and applying as many standard prejudices as one could hold it was mildly stimulating to maintain a running count of customers, before being caught out with the relevant counter question – ‘aren’t you going to ask me for my loyalty card?’ or ‘don’t I look young enough to be asked for my identity card?’. And that was always a tough one to wriggle out of.

The secret shopper was such a stumbling block for me and my colleagues. Were we supposed, or not to exercise our discretion in asking such a long and labourious list of questions. Often the customer had thrown his change across the counter and had already exited the store well before the receipt was even printed.

Now tell me ladies. Am I right in assuming you are the ‘secret shopper’ and you are a student looking for an extra bit of cash in hand or you are a housewife with a little extra time on your hands and a desire to window shop and browse a little in town before the kids come home? Well on average at least. You are not a fat bloke like me in his fifties making clear and persistent eye contact with the young female checkout girl, since that would actually be weird and disconcerting! And have you just bought one or two items because you are not really there to shop but there to check on me? And why would you want a receipt for a pint of milk when no one else does. But tell me do I still have to ask if you have had a nice day and do you want a receipt and the Trading Cards and a plastic bag and truly waste your time and yet still lose my bonus? It is all a little confusing to me. I am just a simple customer assistant who is there to please the customer in all and every situation lest I lose my annual bonus. Please!