Secret shoppers often shop for pizza or clothing with an eye on helpfulness and timely service. They might also evaluate a hotel for cleanliness and service.
But secret shopping isn’t just limited to those kinds of consumer experiences. Wichita State University’s Public Policy and Management Center (PPMC) uses WSU students as secret shoppers to help workforce training centers improve their services for people in search of employment and job training.
In June, the PPMC received a $7,000 grant from Dynamic Workforce Solutions to continue its Secret Shopper Evaluation program.
“People have familiarity with secret shoppers in the retail setting,” said Dulcinea Rakestraw, research and program evaluation manager at the PPMC. “We took that same idea and, instead, are using it in ways that can help entities that serve the public. We look for ways we can test that customer service with shoppers, or pretend clients.”
The PPMC has completed two rounds of secret shopper studies in Kansas at 14 individual sites. It has also completed two rounds in Lincoln, Nebraska, and one in Omaha.
In Kansas over the past few years, the PPMC worked with the Kansas Department of Commerce Workforce Center. Eight WSU student interns were hired to be secret shoppers at 14 Workforce Centers across the state. The students were trained to evaluate the centers on 32 metrics to develop a comprehensive view of the client experience at each site.
The workforce centers use the data to improve their operations by adding training or resources in needed areas.
Students answer a survey of 43 questions on the workforce’s center in areas such as language barriers, ease of computer use, welcoming atmosphere, knowledge displayed by staff, and safety.
The secret shoppers pose as clients with different scenarios – such as a military veteran, a variety of racial backgrounds, or a person with a disability – to evaluate the services.
Wichita State graduate assistant James Roberts worked as a secret shopper, using a Zoom format. Elizabeth Ewers, also a graduate assistant in the PPMC, helps compile data from surveys and portrayed a client on a Zoom meeting. Both are working on the master’s degree in public administration.
Public Policy and Management Center
“I had just come out of a pair of classes, focusing on research, where an example of a secret shopper was used,” Roberts said. “So, it was interesting to learn over the course of the year what the research benefits are to something like a secret shopper – what it does, what it allows for, what kind of information you get that is unique in that kind of setting.”
Using a secret shopper can produce a realistic look at how the centers operate, Roberts said, because people are not on guard, as they might be in a formal interview or survey.
“If you said, ‘We’re going to observe,’ people might have a certain reaction,” he said. “If they’re unaware, you’ll get a more natural response.”
The secret shoppers are surveyed immediately after they visit the workforce center.
“They are really paying attention to things,” Ewers said. “[Secret] shoppers help us get a more focused look at the services.”
Roberts is considering local government and economic development as a career. Ewers is interested in policy research and analysis. Both says the experience with the PPMC provides a look at how their studies translate to the real world.
“Seeing how the secret shopper data is incorporated into their plan to move forward with organization changes, it’s been really helpful for me to see how research and practice can work together and inform each other,” Ewers said.