14 August 2005

Emergent Transparency: Starbucks vs. the Mystery Shoppers

If you work in retail, especially for a large chain, chances are that you've been "mystery shopped." A person, posing as a customer, engages an employee through the course of a typical transaction and then reports on compliance, service and training-related issues. Retailers and service companies contract with one of the many mystery shopping companies as a way of verifying the results of training programs, maintaining a constant check on (often legally-required or regulatory) compliance issues, and simply ensuring that the customer experience is consistent with the company's objectives and image.

Like many "communities of practice," the mystery shoppers - independent contractors all - come together via the online world to compare notes, share tips, gripe and complain, observe, laugh at "insider" humour (humour always being born in a grievance, as McLuhan notes), and generally commiserate with each other. But employees of chain retailers often do the same. And, despite the perception effect that an online forum is a relatively closed and (semi-)private venue, it's not. Rather, insider forums, like the one frequented by many mystery shoppers and the one occupied by those seeking to organize a union for Starbucks employees, provide an interesting and transparent window into the collective and collaborative psyche of these communities. What's even more interesting is when threads on the two intersect.

Here are the Starbucks employees talking about mystery shoppers, while the mystery shoppers talk about the Starbucks employees talking about them. What emerges is a pattern that reflects an interesting symbiosis which only some of the members of either group understand. Additionally, the realization that each group is watching the other conducting a conversation in a perceived "private" venue is a little like watching yourself watching yourself in the mirror. The realization automatically positions you in an anti-environment, from which you have the opportunity to reflect on the true effects of your regular environment - an environment whose effects largely comprise hidden ground.
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