The case for a bit of mystery shopping?

Does anyone who designs consulting firms’ websites and/or writes the content for them actually think about clients?

I was on a conference call with a firm a couple of years ago. It was a particularly difficult situation as we’d been asked by the senior partner to look at how effectively the firm was marketing itself, and this call was to explain and defend our findings to the marketing team. Some of what we had to say was positive, but at the heart of their efforts was a shiny new website that was difficult to navigate, appallingly badly written, and almost certainly guaranteed to put off all but their most loyal clients (who probably wouldn’t be looking at the website anyway). As people started to argue, I played what I guessed would be our trump card: “What kind of client input did you get?”, I asked innocently. There was a short silence, and then someone said, more to his colleagues than to us, “You see, I told you we should have done some focus groups.”

I was reminded of that recently when we were doing some research into—ironically—consulting around the customer experience. This is another of those high-growth, really important markets at the moment, where success depends on combining a range of different skill sets, so people who can help build strategies have to work with designers, data analytics people, behavioural economists, and, of course, technologists. Weaving together all of those different disciplines would always be a challenge, but consulting firms seem to have a knack of making life harder for themselves by a chronic failure to be able to say what’s in the tin. Finding a firm’s customer experience services was the first challenge: Many hide this particular light under some much less topical bushels (strategy or customer service, for example). The next challenge was not to be put off by bland statements about the importance of customer experience—a lesson that, we couldn’t help thinking, appeared to have been more successfully taken on board by these firms’ clients than by the firms themselves. But the straw that invariably broke this camel’s back was the descriptions of services these firms provided, which rarely left us better informed than we had been when we started.

Retailers employ people as mystery shoppers, tasked with checking that products are properly displayed and that staff know what they’re doing. Airlines have employees who travel incognito, to identify ways in which their cabin services can be improved. Call centres have people who ring up to test people’s call handling skills. What they all recognise is that it’s important to see things as their customers see them, and that the people on the inside, however dedicated and talented they are, can’t always spot where things go wrong.

Isn’t it about time that the consulting industry started doing something similar? This is an industry where everyone has opinions about what clients think, but very few people have hard data. Developing use cases and looking at how well designed their websites are for those needs would just be the tip of the iceberg. Doing walk-throughs of how accounts are managed from a client point of view, for instance, would surely highlight enormous potential for improvement, given the extent to which clients complain about how inconsistent consulting firms are.

And, who knows, may be a bit more mystery shopping would help make consulting services seem a bit less mysterious in the future.