Editor’s note: David Rich is president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association and president of ICC/Decision Services, a Wayne, N.J., mystery shopping firm.

In an age in which consumer markets are becoming increasingly powerful, continually assessing how well your company is fulfilling consumer expectations of your brand is no longer a luxury relegated to the realm of big corporations. It’s a necessity that can ensure success for even the smallest of retail operations. And failing to implement this kind of evaluation can mean an untimely death to your business.

While it’s easy to believe this type of assessment can be conducted under the umbrella of an in-house marketing or quality-assurance department, the truth is such perspectives often are skewed according to a number of factors, including personal bias, demographic alignment with your brand or product, and the simple fact that employees are not customers and therefore do not share the same perspective. Likewise, customer surveys of any type (online, mail, in-store), while an often revealing and helpful practice, tend to deliver subjective results based on an individual’s general interpretation of his or her experience as “good” or “bad.”

So just how do you obtain an accurate assessment of how well you’re delivering on your brand’s promise? And how do you evaluate the less tangible elements of your brand standards - the ones that are hard to quantify numerically but are so vital to the overall look and feel you have designed?

Enter the mystery shopper. Sometimes stereotyped as a subjective and slightly campy approach to evaluating employees’ delivery of customer service (think trench coats, wigs and dark sunglasses), mystery shoppers actually embody the balance between employee and customer and, if used correctly, mystery shopper programs can provide an insightful and accurate means of measuring both tangible and intangible elements ...