Mystery shopping to improve customer service across a college campus

Insights from Matthew D. Shank, president emeritus of Marymount University
By: | Issue: March/April 2020
March 5, 2020

Beginning in 2012 and continuing for several years, select Marymount University students got put on a president’s secret mission: pose as mystery shoppers to help assess the service quality in each of the Virginia institution’s non-academic units.

Matthew D. Shank, now president of the Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges, worked with the head of Marymount’s institutional research and planning group to make it happen. “He provided training to those students in terms of what we wanted them to collect, such as how responsive staff in providing the right information and were students getting a big runaround,” says Shank, adding that he originally planned to not use students for the job. “But I figured out that would be impossible for places like the registrar.”

The operation involved 10 to 15 shops running at a time, with multiple offices between tackled over the course of a semester. “It was really a way to get some experiential data on how things were really going. I was a marketing professor when I wasn’t being president, so I had an interest in service quality and customer satisfaction,” Shank says.

Offices would receive mystery shopping feedback forms as well as data from “Marymount at Your Service” surveys. “Each unit had to respond with an action plan for any areas deemed to be below the median,” he explains.

On a 1 to 5 scale, most offices scored above a 3, he recalls. “But certainly we would challenge them even if they got a 4, asking how they could move that even higher.”

The exercise helped all involved—even the students. “I learned that the students really got a lot out of it, not just the notion they were going to mystery shop but how we would collect the data,” says Shank.

Overall he considers the shopping to have been a great exercise that helped keep everyone on their toes and made an impact on student retention.

“Not to be taken the wrong way to think it’s just about catering to students, but our campus was next door to a country club,” Shank says. “My philosophy was always that I think we should run the university with a level of service that you would expect at a high-end country club.”

Read the main article on how admissions offices can use mystery shopping and other tactics to improve customer service levels.