A Complaint is a Gift

February 15

"A Complaint is a Gift." That's what the cute little card said, complete with a drawing of a gift-wrapped package. I eyed it with distrust. Maybe it was the word "complaint" (too familiar), or the simplicity of the drawing (it's a trick), or the fact that it was a presentation piece being used by the graduate students who, for their senior project, had decided to analyze the hiring process under my direction at a 9,000 employee organization in NYC. (I'm just lucky!)

But, over time, as I grew to understand and embrace HR metrics and fact-based planning, I realized how true that statement really is. And, an even bigger gift is finding your gaps before a customer or the competition does. That's why I love secret shopping.

Sure, I kept as close an eye over everything as anyone possibly could. I implemented performance measures, standards and in-service training. I requested activity reports, updates and metrics. I wanted to be sure that all five phases of recruitment (candidate attraction, HR experience, department experience, offer and pre-employment process) were in good shape. But recruitment is a personal process, and there is only so much you can observe/measure from the outside. That's why I love secret shopping.

Yes, surprises are likely. Consider these recent examples of secret shopper findings:

  • Employees involved in a peer interview process were completely unprepared. One asked several inappropriate and even illegal questions.
  • A usability issue in an online application process could be causing high levels of applicants to unknowingly drop off the system prior to completion. A total of 18,600 incomplete applicants were identified in the ATS database.
  • The competition was able to interview and move candidates through the hiring process in half the amount of time. And, the benefits offered were different, but not necessarily better.

Secret Shopping measures the effectiveness of the initial application process from the candidate's perspective. It evaluates how applications are handled and how the candidate feels during the process, and identifies factors (people, technology and processes) that make a positive or negative impression. And, it can help you to learn more about how your organization is perceived in the employment marketplace.

Secret shops are always tailored to specific needs, so they can be focused internally, externally on the competition, or both. They can look at the online, in-person or phone processes, or any combination of methods.

Remember, secret shopping is not just about what isn't working. It's also about what and who is working, and why. It can provide an independent opinion, a context for goals, a focus for improvements, and valuable, positive reinforcement.

A complaint really can be a gift.

For more information on general themes to our secret shopper findings, see Greta Sherman's blog (4/8/08) and watch for our upcoming 2007 summary.

Questions? Comments? Email me at

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