Secret Shopping in Higher Education for Vendor Management


The below is a snippet from a recent Inside Higher Ed article, “Checking on Vendors” by Lindsay McKenzie.

Universities are turning to secret shoppers, not to spy on competitors, but to keep tabs on third-party vendors that run key functions like admissions.

In the competitive world of college admissions, first impressions are crucial. But if your institution outsources its communications with prospective students to a third-party vendor, how would you know if that vendor is pulling its weight? What if inquiries from qualified candidates went unanswered?

One solution, employed by an increasing number of both traditional and online-only institutions, is secret shopping. The method is particularly popular for reviewing admissions procedures, but secret shopping can be used to look at almost any aspect of how universities might interact with students, whether on campus or off and whether managed by the university internally or by third parties.

Secret shopping is a common tactic in the retail and hospitality businesses. Secret shoppers are employed to go into a business and act like a regular customer, perhaps with a particular scenario to test. Unbeknownst to staff, that shopper carefully records details about their experience, which will be fed back to the company’s management.

Maria Jump, assistant vice president of student services at Colorado State University Global Campus, an online-only institution in the CSU System, started using secret shopping last summer and now conducts around 20 “shops” per month. Her focus is on evaluating and improving the student experience, and secret shopping gives her information she “just couldn’t get” from student surveys, she says.

“Secret shopping allows us to focus on one piece of the student experience and control what we’re trying to test,” said Jump. Rather than asking students to reflect on their general experience in retrospect, as usually happens with a survey, secret shopping allows Jump to see how the university is responding to specific situations.