A SELECT group of “mystery shoppers”, whose identities will be kept secret, will soon fan out across India posing as regular train passengers to secretly note what is wrong with the Railways — from food, staff behaviour, and quality on trains and at stations, to amenities for passengers across classes.
These shoppers, a key component of a quality audit system that is used mainly in market research for the hospitality and retail sectors, will then report their findings to the Railways for follow-up action. This is for the first time that “mystery shopping” will be deployed by the Railways, with the Railway Board currently giving finishing touches to the policy.
Official sources told The Indian Express that these shoppers, selected by the Railways, will also interact with the transporter’s passenger interface at various levels from trains to stations and rate them against pre-determined parameters. This will also act as a method to ascertain compliance with rules and regulations on the ground, sources said. The assessment will be updated live on a web-based dashboard for policy intervention.
The Quality Council of India could be nominated for a fee to engage human resources for the job, sources said. There is also a plan to supplement this mechanism with scouts and guides, and voluntary organisations, they said. The identities of these “mystery shoppers” will not be revealed to any Railway employee on the field.
The monetary value of the contract is still being finalised, sources said, adding that discussions are currently on about whether to start this exercise on a small scale with about 50 “mystery shoppers” at targeted locations to gauge utility.
Mystery shopping was developed in the early 20th Century in the US and the UK by firms wanting to gauge employee integrity. Over the decades, it has developed into a preferred mode by companies in fast food chains, medical facilities and even non-profits to assess quality strictly from the consumer’s point of view.
Internally, over 40,000 inspections take place in the Indian Railways system at all levels every day to complement policy intervention. Many of them are surprise checks. However, policymakers are of the view that mystery shopping will be very different from surprise inspections as the auditor will be embedded in the process as a customer interacting with various levels.
Currently, the complaints received every day through the popular handle RailminIndia on Twitter and Facebook constitute direct feedback from customers. On an average, around 6,000 such posts are of “actionable” nature, sources said. The Railways is hoping that mystery shopping would go beyond these existing mechanisms.