Monday, 30 November 2015

It's a mystery

Jackie Knowles explains the value of strangers in our midst.

In Spring 2015, the Library gathered some additional feedback about our Help Desk and staff customer service skills when we were subject to two mystery visits.

Photo by John Houlihan
Mystery visiting is when a 'fake' customer is employed to visit your premises, use your range of services, and ask questions at your customer contact points, usually using a defined scenario. The mystery visitor then provides you with structured feedback and comment about their experience; it is equivalent to a mystery shopping experience in the retail sector. The best mystery visiting results come when the scenario is as close as possible to a genuine enquiry that your service regularly receives so that the mystery visitor can remain incognito and not be spotted by the staff being assessed.

Our mystery visits were arranged through a collaborative project organised by the White Rose Libraries Customer Services Group. Working with colleagues at the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds we developed a model for a three way exchange visit and a comparative methodology for assessment, all based around simulating a real customer scenario. Putting it simply, we employed a York student to go and mystery visit the Sheffield and Leeds libraries and report on their experience, and those institutions did the same sending two anonymous visitors our way.

The scenario we chose for our mystery visit was a postgraduate visiting another university in the region, registering for the Sconul Access scheme and then using the library to study. Our methodology looked at the visitor experience across several dimensions including email and telephone responses to queries, an assessment of the physical premises at each library, as well as specific feedback on interactions with staff at the help desk.

When the results came in we were really pleased with what we were able to find out. We had lots of positive comments affirming that our customer service skills remain a strength, but we were also able to draw out quite a few areas where we identified we could do even better. The way the project was structured meant that we had been able to closely question the mystery visitors and drill into the nuances of their visit; this added a considerable level of detail to the overall picture which we just don't get from reading your comment cards and survey responses. The extra dimension of being able to ask our visitors to directly compare experiences across the three institutions was a real bonus too.

As with all our feedback, we've shared our results widely among our front line staff and managers in the Library. We've also been able to carry out group coaching sessions with the Help Desk team to draw out the lessons learned and discuss specific changes or training we can plan on the back of the the findings.

Finally, we plan to repeat the mystery visiting programme again in the coming year, again using the White Rose collaborative model, and we are looking forward to further deepening our understanding of the customer experience and comparing notes with our colleagues across the region.

If you'd like to find out more please do not hesitate to contact me (

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