val.pearl on flickr, creative commons attribution

image by val.pearl on flickr, creative commons attribution

Have you ever seen the TV show “Undercover Boss”? If you haven’t, it’s essentially a program that features CEOs from different high profile companies going undercover within their own operations to see what and how things are really done by their employees. In most episodes the boss ends up discovering both good and bad things they never knew about in their companies, with the overall goal of improving quality and service.

It’s an interesting concept and one practiced on a smaller scale every day across North America in shopping malls and standalone  stores. Stores hire people as “secret” or “mystery” shoppers, who visit those stores pretending to be real customers. They go through the motions of asking for a product or service, engaging employees in a discussion about it and sometimes even purchasing something, with the intent on reporting back to management on the detail of their experiences, both good and bad.

A great idea, and one that can be used by nonprofits that also may be looking to enhance their service levels.

This isn’t my idea of course, other people have written on it relating to nonprofits before. It just came up for me, though, when I heard Susan Ellis at our recent AVRBC conference mention it. Of course! I thought. Since I actually did a short stint many years ago as a secret shopper (that’s another story all on its own!) I could immediately see how useful this could be to organizations, done in the right way.

If this is a position that you think you could implement in your nonprofit, here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Recruit volunteers who are good at accurately remembering details. Someone who can hold a lot of short-term information in their brain, including a few verbatim quotes, would be ideal in this position. Not surprisingly, a secret shopper doesn’t carry a clipboard with a form on it on which to take notes while the interaction is going on. This comes after, so…

2.  Create a form for the volunteer to fill out immediately after their interaction. When I used to do secret shopper work (for $$$) our forms were up to 20 pages long. While I don’t suggest stressing a volunteer out with a form of that length, I do think you have to create something that is going to give you worthwhile data in the end after going to the trouble of implementing this type of program. If they are doing their “shopping” in person, this most likely means a paper form. Creating the form for online input would be even better, to save time transcribing the data, but this may only be useful if the area around the organization has wifi or if the volunteer has a 3G accessible mobile device on which to fill out the form immediately after the visit. Of course, if the interactions are done by phone and the volunteer is at home, this could be ideal!

3. Train the secret shopping volunteers in the intent of the position. Make them realize that the position wasn’t created to “catch out” another volunteer or staff member or expose their bad habits or practices so that you can make public examples out of them. The purpose is to improve and enhance service to clients and be the best organization on a service level that you can be. Training should also focus on showing the volunteer how to carry out the duties of the position effectively. As it does involve acting the part, this may be a perfect position for a budding theatre performer to try!

4. Find other ways to recognize these volunteers apart from your “regular” group of volunteers. Remember, no one should know who these volunteers are because that would defeat the clandestine purpose of the program. So, instead of inviting them to the volunteer recognition event you may have to hold a separate team meeting (off site!) for these folks and recognize them there. They still may want social contact with you and other volunteers who are doing the same role, or they simply may want to go for coffee with you alone and receive a small gift. Recognition depends on the person and why they are motivated to do the role, so just ask what will work for them.

5. Figure out a timeline and frequency of “shops” that works for your organization and situation. This volunteer position may work best as a short-term or very episodic one as people may start to recognize your secret shoppers and be tipped off to what you’re doing! If your organization has several sites or hundreds of employees then you may be able to engage the same volunteer for a longer time period, but the opposite may be the case in a small organization; you may only be able to engage them once or twice.

Good luck in recruiting secret shopper volunteers for your nonprofit organization! I’d love to hear if any of you are already doing this and what’s been working for you, so please feel free to share your stories in the comments.

Here are some other sites to check out if you’re interested in learning more about secret shopper volunteers:

Blog post: http://www.jffixler.com/there-“secret-shopper”-your-midst

Recruitment ad: http://www.arlingtonlibrary.org/volunteer-secret-shopper

Recruitment ad/position description: http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/nvum/volunteer/shopper_instructions.html