Mystery Shopping: A Different Way to “Listen to the Customer”

So many conversations in financial inclusion recently focus on the customer experience. The prevalence of tools like Human-Centered Design, and techniques such as “Listening to the Customer," reflect a new focus on understanding consumer behavior and preferences.

This line of research focuses primarily on how a consumer and a product interact. But there is an equally important aspect to consider to bring more consumers into formal finance: How customers interact with the people who first provide these financial services to them. The initial sales experience is a key step in the customer journey: it informs customers of the product options, matches products to their needs, and instills the confidence and trust to ensure continued usage.

But these sales visits rely in large part on individual salespeople and how they interact with customers. This means that there is also a lot that can go wrong for the consumer, which can limit their future use of products, or even worse lead to consumer harm.

A man painting a boat takes a rest and hangs off the side of the deck
A man painting a boat takes a rest and hangs off the side of the deck. Photo by AM Ahad.

This underscores the importance of understanding the sales process and the role that sales incentives, staff knowledge, misinformation and biases against certain customers—in particular low-income customers—can play in leading to a positive or negative customer experience.

One of the simplest, most effective ways to monitor and measure this customer—salesperson interaction is using mystery shopping. Mystery shopping involves sending customers to a financial service provider to simulate a typical customer inquiry.

Over the past three years, CGAP, the World Bank and in-country partners that include donors, policymakers and research firms, have partnered to develop a mystery shopping methodology for financial inclusion and consumer protection. These experiences are now available for use in a Mystery Shopping Technical Guide, which includes instructions on how to design your own mystery shopping, highlights from mystery shopping programs in six markets, consumer questionnaires, training materials, data analysis tips, as well as supplementary tools including product audit forms and sales staff surveys.

Our mystery shopping method includes training actual low-income customers to conduct the visits themselves, to measure the true experiences and challenges these types of consumers face in acquiring quality financial services. Going one step further, in many of the visits customers were trained to portray different needs, experience levels and willingness to pay. By training customers to portray different profiles, it is possible to measure not just what information and advice was given, but how that may differ based on the sales staff’s perception of the customer.

Some of the more interesting insights we have learned from our mystery shopping work include the following:

  • In Mexico, sales staff would not mention the low-cost, basic savings account mandated by law, even when consumers presented needs and preferences that clearly indicated this would be the best product option for the consumer.
  • In Ghana, sales staff not only did not share the APR of loans—as required by law—many of them had no idea what APR meant, and even got suspicious of shoppers who asked about APR since it seemed so out of line with what typical shoppers asked them.
  • In Kenya, social assistance beneficiaries were charged more to purchase food with debit cards by local merchants, and were often made to stand to the side and let other “normal” customers be served first.
  • In Malaysia, insurance agents almost universally did not use the Customer Fact Find Form, a detailed tool which is intended to capture key customer information such as health and finances, and be used to assess consumer needs and product suitability. Instead most salespersons focused primarily on the shopper’s tolerance for monthly premium amounts, which the researchers varied from shopper to shopper to measure its impact on product recommendations.

It is our hope that the materials provided in the Mystery Shopping Technical Guide will help more policymakers, providers and researchers probe the role that sales staff have in the quality of financial products consumers are offered. By measuring all information provided during sales visits, and the role that biases and consumer profiles play in sales staff behavior, we can help sales staff to better serve consumers, and make sure that the products and services they receive are truly the ones that best suit their needs.



This Technical Guide is designed to enable policy makers with jurisdiction over market conduct issues, consumer protection organizations, and development agencies to conduct mystery shopping exercises.

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