Mystery shopping is not a new idea and it has some obvious attractions in at least attempting a customer-based evaluation of service quality.  Its big weakness is that people pretending to be customers aren’t actually customers and so can’t be expected to react as if they were.  That suggests that mystery shoppers might be able to give a useful account of some aspects of the experience, but that we need to remember that there is a critical dimension missing.

The missing bit has a lot to do with what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the experience.  There is a huge difference between trying to get something done because you need it done and trying to get something done because that’s what today’s checklist tells you to do.

Enter the empathy audit – a term I had never come across until an interesting conversation last week.  It sounds like an excellent idea:  attempt to understand systematically what it feels like to be a customer, not just whether a checklist has been complied with.    The leading practitioners of this art are an outfit called Harding and Yorke – indeed, they are possibly the only practitioners:  the term is sufficiently arcane to have only 30 hits on google, one of which is this article from the Observer a few years ago.

For people with sufficient hubris to describe themselves as "The Home of Customer Empathy", the H&Y website does little for me as a potential customer.  Rather cloyingly, in addition to the conventional ‘about us’ section of the site, they have an ‘about you’ section, the existence of which they feel the need to explain:

The reason why we have opened our website with an ‘About You’ tab is
because all too often consultancies forget that everything we do is
about helping you and your people to benefit both personally and
financially from our expertise and content.

We are proud to work
in partnership with our clients and our products and services are
designed and led by your needs – and not ours.

Well.  Yes.  But, astonishingly, once you have waded through the syrup and navigated through a staggeringly badly designed website, it proves extraordinarily difficult to discover what an empathy audit actually is, or why you would want one.  What seems to be the main page on the subject dives immediately and breathlessly into process.

At this point it’s tempting to give up and wait for the next snake oil salesman to come along.  But the person I heard describing this concept had been a customer of this service, and had clearly found it extremely valuable – and their client list is pretty respectable.  So perhaps I should take a deep breath and give them a call…

Or there again, perhaps it would be better talking to more customers.