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Mitch Anthony's Intuitive Advisor

The Practice Doctor is IN

Mystery Shopper

by Al Depman, CLU, ChFC, CMFC, BH
Practice Management Consultant

Al Depman photoAs compliance departments around the country brace for additional federal oversight, the concept of using mystery shoppers to monitor field behavior has been raised. Long used by other businesses, I recall vividly my days with McDonald's when word went around that mystery shoppers were in the area. Our attention to detail and procedure certainly went up as the crew looked over each customer suspiciously but with utmost courtesy. In other words, the mystery shopper concept worked well for the hamburger biz. But how about the concept as applied to financial advisors?

I recently ran the idea by a producer team that included Steve Fisher, a CFP in Midlothian, VA; Jennifer, his assistant; and Harley, his young associate.

Steve was suspicious of the concept but finally agreed it would be fine if it got no further than the early stages of the meeting. After all, initial meetings that go nowhere aren't unusual. But spending his valuable CFP-driven time on analysis and case preparation would be unfair. "If I did a lot of work for a mystery shopper who wouldn't buy anything from the start, I'd be angry," Steve told me.

Jennifer, the enterprising assistant who tries to hold Steve accountable, immediately saw value in a mystery shopper to be hired by the whole firm as a way of confirming the advisors are consistent in their approaches to prospects. The mystery shopper would have a checklist of topics the advisor should cover in a first meeting: Is the company positioned correctly? Was compensation discussed? Were the trigger questions asked? Did the advisor allow the prospect to explain their situation? She thought it would be valuable information.

Harley, with all of a year's worth of experience, said he wouldn't mind a mystery shopper as a training tool. "We're supposed to do X number of first appointments anyway. It would be better feedback than I get from role-playing in the office." Most role-play scenarios are dry. They provide visual feedback, ideally, and scripts can be memorized. But the reality of the encounter is where Harley feels he'd benefit from firsthand feedback.

Other advisors I contacted were put off by the concept, though some agreed that it might be valuable for monitoring those who have been fined or come under NASD scrutiny.

My own feedback is that if an advisor wants to grow the practice, the mystery shopper would provide clarity around the client's experience, however deep into the sales process on which the advisor desires feedback. It's voluntary, not mandated. It provides feedback in a way a client survey can't.

Good client surveys give feedback from existing clients. If there is an element of anonymity, gauging the current client experience through a survey can be revealing. If there is no anonymity, the results are predictable: "the advisor is awesome, and sure, I'd talk about referrals if asked." Other topics could include:

  1. how's the service response level?
  2. do you like the newsletter?
  3. should we call you more often?

This information has a purpose, of course: to see if the advisor's practice is providing ongoing value to all clients.

The mystery shopper comes to us from the brand-new, prospect perspective. From this new prospect encounter, we look for personality traits and sensory clues like firmness of handshake, presentation, materials, and the most important factor: did the advisor build trust with the prospect? Did he or she promise anything out-of-bounds? Client surveys don't cover this first encounter, which can arguably be up to 90 percent of the sale. It would be critical feedback for an advisor to receive.

I haven't encountered an advisor in my 30 years in the industry who has actually used a mystery shopper. Any stories from our audience who have? I'd like to share them in a future column.

Until then, the Doctor is OUT!

© 2017 Al Depman

Al Depman, CLU, ChFC, CMFC, BH, a.k.a. "The Practice Doctor", is's Business Practice Consultant, and contributor to "The Wall Street Journal." He is the creator of "The Practice Management Assessment" tool, the key component of The Business Practice Check-Up™, has authored numerous articles in professional publications on practice management, and is the author of the book, How to Build Your Financial Advisory Business and Sell It at a Profit, available from McGraw Hill. Al combined his Liberal Arts studies with 10 years of management experience with McDonald's Corporation to enter the financial services world 25 years ago. Since then, Al has evolved from an MDRT-level sales rep into a full-time consultant specializing in helping others engineer their business practices to the next level. Contact him at

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