How to understand what your customers think

20 January 2011
How to understand what your customers think

While an average quality meal can be transformed by great service, fantastic food can be overshadowed by service that doesn't meet a customer's expectation. Unsurprisingly, in both situations it's the way a customer is treated that will dominate his or her memory of the occasion.

As an operator it's vital to have a good understanding of what customers are thinking as they leave your establishment so that you can identify problems quickly.

Reputation is intricately linked with customer perceptions and any brand; whether it's a restaurant chain operating in multiple locations, a chip van operating on the side of an A-road or an independent boutique hotel - must be proactive in protecting this in order to ensure longevity and profitability.

There are many different ways to learn from your customers, so devising a method to acquire and review feedback is one of the most important tools to improve both front and back-of-house performance.

The critical thing, aside from actually using the feedback, is to ensure that any processes that you do use to critique your customer service are fair and impartial. It can be damaging to morale if staff think there is unqualified or biased finger pointing is going on.

There are no firm and fast rules for developing a customer assessment programme. Each business is unique and, therefore, you need to find a balance that fits your business.

Steven Pike
The Mystery Dining Company


1 Work out what you want to know
Even the most acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers have to identify areas where they could perform better. It might be first impressions or improving the family-friendliness factor, or possibly there are recurring issues with housekeeping or cleanliness that might be tainting customer perceptions?

Timings or communication between front and back of house as well as rapport between staff and customers are other key areas.

2 Identify who can help you
Many businesses already have some form of evaluation mechanism in place; whether it's asking customers to fill out a comment card, survey or guest book, monitoring online review sites, getting friends and families to share their experiences or a structured mystery visitor programme.

Find people with a keen eye for detail who can make relevant comparisons and provide constructive feedback.

3 Get your questions right
Consider what is the most important element of your brand. If it's consistency it's probably elements such as timings and uniformity of dishes, if it's individuality you'll be looking at more subjective elements such as atmosphere and staff attitudes. In your questioning encourage customers to give descriptions or opinions and avoid asking things that can be answered as a yes or no.

4 Work with your staff
It's often surprising how few people in an operation, front and back of house, have actually experienced the service from the other side in their own establishment. Encouraging this, or inviting front of house staff to spend a service in the kitchen can create greater awareness and, in turn, better customer service.

Also, where possible, involve staff in designing questionnaires for mystery dining visits, as it helps to encourage ownership rather than creating a ‘them against us' situation.

5 Know how to use the results
Are there common themes in your customer's perceptions? Do they contradict what you, as an operator, set out to achieve? Make sure you acknowledge complaints. If they're handled promptly and with suitable compensation (an apology, money off the bill, letter from the manager or a voucher) it will go a long way to improving a customer's opinion of a venue.

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