If you knew exactly what your customers thought about your business, you'd be much better placed to see how things could be improved. And, as experienced operators know, mind-reading isn't as hard as it sounds
Do you know what your customer is thinking? Is it possible to get inside their brain and see why that smile on leaving isn't as genuine as you might like? According to our experts, empathising with your guest isn't as dark an art as you might think.
Much of a customer's experience is about emotion. How someone feels will influence their decision to buy, spend more, return or complain. But is it possible to get inside their mind and understand what they want?
There's no need to buy fancy equipment, or enlist the help of expensive consultants. Making positive emotional connections with your customers needn't even be complex or time consuming. It involves empathy on the part of you and your staff, and a willingness to engage and understand how a guests' perception may be different from yours.
In the main it's about standing back and looking at the business from another angle. Some general managers will stay in a different room in their hotel each night so that they can identify squeaky floorboards or poorly placed light switches.
However you do it, it is vital you have an understanding of what your customers are thinking in order to meet their expectations. Here we round up what experts and operators suggest are simple, and inexpensive, ways of finding out exactly what your customers are thinking.
Keeping customers recommending
Anne Blackburn, customer experience director at Sidona Group, explains how to generate feedback that will keep customers returning and recommending.
1 Ask them Simply by asking your customers what they want you will understand them better. They may even give you feedback on competitors, too. Including customers openly also helps gain their loyalty since people love being asked what they think.
2 Be a customer Walk the floor of your own business, looking through the eyes of your customers. What is good, what works? Equally, what gets in the way and stops you purchasing. Do the same in businesses you emulate or aspire to.
3 Become a mystery shopper
4 Gather a focus group Offer a free lunch to key customers, detractors or local influencers, to discuss what makes them dislike, like, love or recommend your business. Why do or donÁ¢ÂÂt they do this and what could you do to match their expectations?
5 Analyse website traffic Use Google Analytics to work out which pages are most visited, and how customers are coming to your site. If there are spikes in your traffic, do you understand why, and can you repeat this?
6 Recognise patterns in guestsÁ¢ÂÂ behaviour Keep records of your customers, and check out what they do when they come back. Do they stay in the same room, use the same facilities, request the same dish?
7 Listen to staff Ask front of house for their feedback and suggestions.
8 Engage online Whether or not your business is on Twitter or Facebook, it is worth searching for comments on your business Á¢ÂÂ" good and bad Á¢ÂÂ" and responding to them. If responding on TripAdvisor, read the reviews in full and take a measured approach, not a knee-jerk reaction to one or two comments.
9 Ask the right questions Are you asking the right questions on guest comment cards? Consider whether you could frame them better to build loyalty and advocacy.
10 Be aware of the wider market Use local resources such as tourism bodies and the media to research trends and statistics. Keep abreast of the news and subscribe to newsletters to pick up on what consumers are saying and doing.
I want to look inside your headÁ¢ÂÂ¦.
Check out the competition
Reward top performers with a meal out for two at a competitor restaurant. They then have to report back to the team on how they found it. That way they can experience eating out from the customerÁ¢ÂÂs perspective, and as well as be on the look-out for ideas they can take back to help benefit their own customersÁ¢ÂÂ experience.
Steven Pike, managing director, the Mystery Dining Company
Seek feedback from customers past and present
As part of our full branding review of the Royal Garden and in addition to our usual customer satisfaction programme, we sought feedback from guests that had used the hotel in the past but not returned, new guests from the past year or so and regulars. We wanted to gain a greater understanding of market perception, whether we are delivering on guest expectations and what we could do to over deliver.
Tim Fryer, food and beverage director, Royal Garden Hotel
Be alert to the likes and dislikes of your regulars
If a guest mentions that they play golf, we will then provide a golf magazine in their room. At our five-star hotels, guests are provided with a guest preference form so they can advise us in advance of any likes and dislikes, which are then noted in our guest history and used to personalise their experience.
Jonathan Raggett, managing director, Red Carnation Hotels
I used to stand outside my hotel and watch people walking by. Did they stop and read the menu? Did they go in and if so, where did they go? If they walked on I would stop them and introduce myself as the general manager and ask why they hadnÁ¢ÂÂt gone in. I usually invited them back to the hotel for a drink in the bar or a pot of tea, on me. Around 80% would then ask for a menu and stay for lunch or dinner. I learnt a lot from this.
Arnold Fewell, managing director, AVF Marketing
Read and respond to reviews
With the growth of the internet, customers are no longer hesitating to leave feedback on their experience, either positive or negative. It is vital that as a service provider those comments are regularly read through, cascaded down to all staff and moreover replied to and addressed.
The best way to obtain genuine comments from your customers is to be open to criticism. Asking simple questions while handing back a coat or wishing a client farewell will get some tongues untied.
Alain Mara, group general manager, Roux at Parliament Square
ItÁ¢ÂÂs not just about the food and service
I deliberately take clients to the loos and dressing rooms when IÁ¢ÂÂm doing a venue tour. It gives them the chance to make any amendments ahead of their event rather than find something that disappoints them on the night.
When we send the bill we always send a gift of something that lasts, like candles. That way the last thing they think about us isnÁ¢ÂÂt the Á£10,000 bill.
Damian Clarkson, managing director, the London Kitchen
Get creative about how you get feedback
All our clients attend a site visit and later a personalised tasting with our head chef, which is a great opportunity to gain feedback on the venue and food.
But not all clients give you honest feedback face-to-face. I heard of one venue that booked and paid for a taxi for all his clients after their tastings. They then paid the taxi driver a little extra to report back to him on anything the client said about the visit.
James Varah, event sales director, the Brewery
Put you and your staff in your customersÁ¢ÂÂ shoes
We do role-play daily to train and prepare but also to put ourselves in our guestsÁ¢ÂÂ shoes. My managers are asked to use the guestsÁ¢ÂÂ toilets to check for cleanliness and I like to come into the venue through different doors to get a feel and look at it from a different angle.
Fred Sirieix, general manager, Galvin at Windows
Keep it simple
Comment cards, focus groups and surveys will always have a place but it can be time-consuming or inconvenient. Based on the well-known Innocent Smoothie approach to customer feedback, we have developed our own simple system with three boxes labelled Á¢ÂÂgoodÁ¢ÂÂ, Á¢ÂÂbadÁ¢ÂÂ and Á¢ÂÂcould be betterÁ¢ÂÂ. Customers are encouraged to drop a coloured ball in the box they feel best represents their experience. This provides a quirky and practical element to obtaining customer views.
James Greetham, managing director, Prestige London
Canvas a cross-section of views
We meet with clients and employee representatives of their company every quarter to discuss and debate food issues. We will always bring innovative or provocative food to these meetings to kick-start the debate. This could be Á¢ÂÂbrain foodÁ¢ÂÂ for example, or a new food trend.
When we meet with a cross-section of the company we get a cross-section of views. We then publish the results in the restaurant so that we communicate effectively with all our customers: a bit of Á¢ÂÂyou said, we didÁ¢ÂÂ.
Simon MacFarlane, operations director, Bite Catering
Give your staff the guest experience
Sometimes staff cannot afford to go to a restaurant like the one in which they work. Give the staff the chance to dine in their own restaurant Á¢ÂÂ" or organise an exchange with a similar level local restaurant. It also sends the employee the message that the company cares about them and encourages empathy for the customer.
Wagner Lopes, restaurant and food service consultant, Sebrae-SP
Employee feedback is equally important
Hold regular team meetings to discuss ways that the business can be improved. No one is better equipped than the internal customers (employees) of that business to provide feedback.
Annual employee satisfaction surveys are another great way to obtain feedback about the business and how it can be improved. The benefit is this feedback is confidential and potentially more revealing.
Chris Talbot, founder and owner, Assured Customer Experience
Employing the eyes of your diners
Renaissance Pubs uses a mystery diner club to assess service and food quality from the point of view of the punter. It enables the group to see its business through the eyes of its customer, and offers a fantastic opportunity for data capture.
Á¢ÂÂIn the first week of introducing the mystery diner club 450 people signed up,Á¢ÂÂ says Renaissance Pubs founder Mark Reynolds. Á¢ÂÂEvery month we use two mystery diners in each site, drawn randomly from the list. We attach a couple of forms and, once these are completed, we back-pay them.Á¢ÂÂ The forms ask for the mystery dinersÁ¢ÂÂ immediate impressions followed by their thoughts on the food, beer, wine, value for money and atmosphere. A second section asks specific yes/no questions such as: did the staff ask you if you required anything else when serving your food?
Reynolds finds that it offers the management a real feel of the pubs when theyÁ¢ÂÂre not there.
Interrogate your guests
The Eden Collection, which late last year acquired two properties from in-administration Von Essen Á¢ÂÂ" the Mount Somerset hotel and spa near Taunton and the Greenaway hotel and spa in Cheltenham Á¢ÂÂ" never misses an opportunity to engage with guests.
The group has grown rapidly in the past six months, and is currently consolidating its stock, but at its more established hotels it has a huge amount of repeat customers. Á¢ÂÂWe know their names, their background and a bit about their family. ItÁ¢ÂÂs a very friendly customer-facing relationship,Á¢ÂÂ explains sales and marketing director Tara Robinson.
Sarah Baker has been general manager at Mallory Court hotel near Leamington Spa for 22 years and, according to Robinson, knows her guests so well she will change water, tea bags and flowers for guests depending on their preference. Á¢ÂÂItÁ¢ÂÂs those touches that make people want to return,Á¢ÂÂ she says.
Á¢ÂÂAll staff are encouraged to engage with the guests. They make the experience. A guest only has to mention something they do or donÁ¢ÂÂt like and we will have included or removed it from their room, or made sure itÁ¢ÂÂs on the menu for their next visit.
Take the time
At contract caterer Crown Group itÁ¢ÂÂs all a question of taking the time to talk. The companyÁ¢ÂÂs clients are both its contract clients who organise events, and those attending the event.
Á¢ÂÂThe common denominator with how we handle any of our clients is time,Á¢ÂÂ explains Crown Group managing partner Charles Beer. Á¢ÂÂWe ensure the staff dealing with customers right from the beginning have the ability to give the time to understand what they want.Á¢ÂÂ
He says that as most of the catererÁ¢ÂÂs products are bespoke staff need to ask the right questions and understand first hand the food and wine available.
Á¢ÂÂAny organisation can be introverted but we try to say to our staff Á¢ÂÂwhat would you thinkÁ¢ÂÂ,Á¢ÂÂ Beer adds.
In order to fully empathise with the customer regular staff test calls are made. Á¢ÂÂWe use our own staff as potential customers so they understand what itÁ¢ÂÂs like to be on the other side,Á¢ÂÂ Beer says.
Once a customer is interested they are offered a tasting menu to ensure the offer meets expectations.