A cloud of discouraging news has hung over the restaurant industry for several months now. NPD Group reported the number of restaurants in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest level in 10 years. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, one third of U.S. adults indicated they are eating out less than they did just three months ago.
With fewer diners and the unpleasant news, brands are fighting for every dollar from the guest. A good place to start is elevating the guest experience. As the analyst firm Gartner declared: The customer or guest experience is “the new competitive battlefield.”
To help you navigate through this increasingly tricky battlefield, here are three keys to help you get the most out of your guest feedback and elevate the guest experience so you can win your unfair share of the market.
1. Focus on Stories, Not Scores
During a recent business trip, I had to miss my son’s first little league baseball game of the season. When I called home later that day, I asked him how he did. He proceeded to tell me he got a hit on the very first pitch of his at-bat and knocked the ball right back up the middle of the infield to get a single, and then his teammates managed to bring him home to score with a series of hits. His story was verified with the video my wife captured on her phone.
My son didn’t just recite his personal box score—2/3, 1R—when I asked how he did. He told me the story of the game, along with lots of detail about each at-bat. A box score wouldn’t have given me anywhere near the detail I needed to understand how the game had gone. It’s human nature to tell a story, rather than list off a series of numbers.
Your guests, like my son, have a story to tell—not just a series of ratings to share. Harnessing technology, you can capture rich data about your guests’ experiences. They’ll provide a “box score” by rating different aspects of the experience, from food quality, to staff friendliness, to overall satisfaction.
But the real value comes from the stories they’ll tell. A guest may rate the Quality of the Food a “3” but that doesn’t tell you much. You can infer the food wasn’t excellent or as good as the guest was expecting, but really not much beyond that.
Using artificial intelligence, today’s best feedback technologies can encourage guests to have a real-time conversation with brands—asking them to leave more detail to key into specific topics they mention. This gives the guest who rated the quality of the food a “3” the opportunity to tell you why. Understanding the why behind the score gives you and your staff specific direction on exactly where to focus improvements, as well as what guests love most about your brand.
We like to think of scores kind of like a compass or speedometer—pointing you in a general direction—with stories serving as more of a guidance system. You really need both to understand exactly where you are with your guests, whether you’re heading the right direction, and exactly where to go next.
2. Retain and Recover Guests
Earlier in my career, I worked as the general manager of a local barbecue restaurant. One Friday evening, I heard the words every GM dreads: “The phone’s for you. This guy is really mad.”
I picked up the phone and the conversation went something like this:
“You idiots forgot my barbecue sauce, I have two racks of ribs and no barbecue sauce! I don’t want to eat them without the sauce.”
“I’m really sorry, that shouldn’t have happened. There’s nothing worse than getting home and not having everything you need for you meal. We’d like to make this right. Can I bring you some sauce right now?”
“You would do that? We’re way out here, it’s probably too far.”
“Nope, we really want to make this right for you. Give me your address and I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m a pretty fast driver…”
The guest then gave me his address and I drove like lightning to get to his house. By the time I got there, he met me out on the front porch with a wad of cash for a tip and a smile on his face and thanked me for saving his night. In those few minutes between his call and my delivery, our restaurant had gone from the “idiots who forgot the sauce,” to the “restaurant that was willing to drive to his house.” And he wanted to give us more money, even though we messed up.
In nearly 14 years of working with customer feedback, we see this same trend across every industry we serve. If a brand responds quickly to a problem, resolving it with a high level of satisfaction, the customer is just as likely to return, and just as likely to promote the brand as if they had experienced no problem at all.
New York Times bestselling author Jay Baer has written a book about the importance of connecting with guests who had a bad experience called “Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers.” Baer says that one-third of all customer complaints go completely unanswered which is the worst possible thing you can do. He says, “No reply is actually a reply—it says we don’t care about you at all.”
Through a proper guest recovery process, you can actually turn these negative experiences into a positive result. Reaching out to guests and resolving their concern to their satisfaction is a great retention tool to actually drive business results.
And the effort pays off. Baer writes that, “a 5% increase in customer retention can increase your profits by 25% to 85%… Keeping a guest long term is much more cost effective than trying to find new guests.”
Reaching out does more than recover a single transaction. The value of a one-time rescue is multiplied over the lifetime of the relationship between guest and brand. Lifetime value is calculated by tracking the number of times they visit in a year, multiplying that number by the average per transaction spend, and then multiplying that number by the average number of years they’re a guest of your brand. Different demographic groups have different lifetime values. One large pizza chain estimated that the average lifetime value of a guest was around $10,000, and Starbucks says the lifetime value of one of their guests is over $14,000!
And value doesn’t stop there. Happy guests are also more likely to add even more value by influencing others to choose your brand.
The right technology will give you the ability to receive instant notifications when a guest requests follow up, automatically open and facilitate the successful management and closure of each case, and even check in with staff members to identify the root cause so you can prevent the problem from happening again.
3. Engage Your Employees
To your guests, your servers, cooks, and hosts are ambassadors of your brand.
Your employees are crucial to elevating the guest experience and creating more loyal guests. For many brands, the most talked-about aspect of their customer experience isn’t what went wrong. In fact, much of guest feedback is about the positive impact great staff had on their experience.
A few questions to ask yourself as you consider the role your frontline employees play in the guest experience:
- Do they know how important their role is?
- Do you have the right people in the right roles?
- Do they feel valued and appreciated?
- Are they receiving guest feedback about their performance—regarding both opportunities to improve, as well as appreciation?
The tried and true service profit chain model says that happy, engaged employees lead to happy, engaged guests, leading to increased revenue and profit.
However, what we’ve found is that this relationship is more reciprocal and bi-directional. The relationship between guests and employees is much more circular than linear. You can use the feedback and stories from your guests to help engage your employees. Consider the following comment left by a customer of a large restaurant chain:
“Everything was AWESOME!!! My food was hot, my server [NAME] was super nice and totally helped me out with my veggie burger. Plus she had a contagious smile the whole time, it really brightened up my day! I’m definitely [sic] impressed with the cleanliness of this [BRAND]. You guys rock and Thanks [NAME]!”
Now imagine if this story was shared with the employee. She would feel valued, appreciated, and motivated to continue to go above and beyond and create more of these “wow” moments with her guests. If this was shared with the rest of the team, they would be inspired to perform better as well.
Ensure your feedback partner has the analytics power to capture, understand, and instantly route notifications of these types of “wow” moments to targeted leaders in your business to ensure these positive behaviors are recognized and in a timely manner.
Using these types of stories from your guests to celebrate and recognize your team perpetuates a culture of positivity around guest feedback. Too often frontline employees look at guest feedback as punitive and damaging. And unfortunately some managers and leaders use it that way. Frontline employees should want to hear the guest stories whether positive or negative. Sharing the positive stories helps to create better dialogue and coaching moments between a frontline employee and their manager even when those negative stories come through.
Getting the most out of the feedback your guests provide will ultimately help your business thrive and succeed in both challenging and prosperous times. Study after study has shown brands that elevate the guest experience have higher stock prices, increased revenue, and reduced expenses. Temkin Group research shows even modest improvements in customer experience can be worth millions of dollars to restaurant brands.
So don’t wait! Begin elevating the guest experience—and their voice—at your restaurant now.