Posing as customers, “secret shoppers” deliver the inside scoop to management about their experiences with various service providers. They can be invaluable to management in all kinds of situations, including long-term care, though there are special challenges there.
Secret shoppers are perhaps best known for retail settings. But they’re also used in hospital settings. A controversial recent New York Times article noted how faux patients arrive in emergency departments with contrived symptoms that allow them to observe the proceedings. The information provided is used to alter procedures and enhance training with the goal of improving customer satisfaction.
According to the article, “Undercover in a Hospital Bed,” personal details that explain poor customer service ratings can leave hospital executives “spellbound.” In one example, a secret shopper reported that staff members were dismissive of patient concerns and squabbled among themselves. Poor teamwork made her doubt the quality of the care she was receiving.
The findings inspired the hospital to create and train employees on new norms of staff behavior, including staying off cell phones and learning more about the lives of the people presenting for care. Obvious long-term care parallels can be assumed, but there’s more.
There were a wide variety of comments on the New York Times piece. Hospital insiders affirmed the necessity and benefit of this stealth approach. Others deplored the waste of resources used on the deception. A few pointed to statistics indicating that what customers might consider good service could actually result in poorer clinical care. (Think: I’m so happy they gave me that opioid I wanted.)
Workers fumed that their own opinions weren’t solicited. They were also concerned about superficial fixes such as pushing employees to plaster smiles on their faces without investigating and correcting the reasons that they weren’t smiling in the first place.
My take is that while workers have valuable information regarding the patient experience, they’re not always in a position to reveal it and management isn’t generally receptive to worker commentary. If the leadership team uses the information gleaned from the brief deception of a secret shopper to make underlying changes that positively impact patients and employees, then the strategy is a valuable tool.
Application to LTC
Those interested in the idea will note, however, that it’s easier to pose as a hospital patient than it is to be a mock nursing home resident.