By Matt Hoffman
Whether your restaurant is still in an economic slump or your sales have been skyrocketing, you know things can change in an instant. That's why you need to regularly check the pulse of your business and find out if your employees and customers are truly happy. If they're not, then it's time to make some changes to create happy, loyal, long-term employees and customers who are the key to your company's success.
The best way to evaluate how your business is doing is to gather feedback from your customers and employees. You can do this in several ways, from asking questions verbally to distributing surveys.
Following are some pointers that will help you get the feedback you need to improve your business.
One of the simplest ways to gather feedback from your customers is simply to have your employees ask them, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” or “Is there any way in which we are failing to meet your needs?” Pay attention to what your customers say and record it to analyze later.
Another method is to have them complete a questionnaire with such questions as: “Did we ask everything you expected us to ask?” “How did we meet your expectations?” and “Were you satisfied with the service you received?”
While you certainly need to listen to your customers, read between the lines. Even though a customer may say she's happy, does her tone of voice really reflect that sentiment? Most communication is nonverbal, and if you're talking with someone over the phone, you cannot read the expression on his or her face or observe body language signals. But you may be able to pick up on subtle reactions, such as a sigh.
Pay attention to the questions a customer asks. For example, if a customer asks, “What about that great offer you had a month agoñwhat happened to that?” After the employee gives a standard response, the customer may respond with: “Oh, okay.” You may write it off as a passing comment, but maybe it isn't. Track how many customers ask that same question. If you know that question always leads to three more questions, you can manage their expectations (and perhaps prevent disappointment) by developing a response that answers the initial question and answers the next three questions in advance. Anticipating your customers' needs makes them happy and shows that you know them. This helps build relationships.
Written surveys are also good tools to collect information from customers. They can either be done on the phone by a representative or using interactive voice response, over the Internet or through direct mail. Remember to respect your customers' time by keeping the survey quick and easy. Always include at least one question on the survey that allows customers to give feedback (good and bad) in their own words.
Use Customer Feedback to Your Advantage
What do you do with feedback? First, evaluate what you have. Develop a database tailored to the information you want to track (e.g., pricing structure, quality, service). Look at the percentage of your top two positive responses to get a good representative sample. Don't count the neutrals. If your goal is to improve flawed service, also look at the two lowest responses. Once you have a representative negative response, you can research why people are disappointed and find a way to remedy it.
Just as it is important to turn unhappy customers into happy ones, it is important to reward people who already think you're good. Keep your loyal customers happy. If you follow up with a customer about his feedback, you convey to him that you value his opinion. That's a great way to keep customers coming back to you.
Finally, use customer feedback as a tool to evaluate employee performance by asking specific questions: “Was your server knowledgeable, polite and friendly?” The responses you receive will identify who needs more training and who is performing well.
It's easy to ignore information from front line employees, dismissing it as complaining; however, next to direct contact with your customers, your front line employees are the best resource for providing customer feedback because they interact with the customers. They can give both general and specific observations (for instance, that customers have mentioned they liked the quality of one menu item, but have not been happy with the quality of another). Your employees are on the front line taking care of the customers, so you need to keep them as happy as possible. Listen to their comments. It makes them feel appreciated.
One way to do this is to have a monthly focus group with different employees to keep on top of any new issues. Focus groups allow employees to voice their opinions about issues that affect their jobs. You'll find that many employees feel more empowered to speak in a group as part of the group dynamic. In some cases, they may say in a group setting more than if you had asked them individually. It's a nice motivational tool to follow up with the group when you have acted on any of their suggestions because it shows you value your insight and makes them feel as if they were part of the team.
To learn more about your internal policies, procedures and tools, survey your employees. Some employees are reluctant to participate in surveys, so offer an incentive for their participation, such as a raffle. If your survey does not require anonymity, offer employees a dollar, a company-paid lunch or movie tickets. You're more likely to get accurate responses and better employee cooperation if you offer an incentive.
You probably won't need to twist arms if you are asking employees to talk about what they do and ask for ideas on how to make their jobs better, but if you want to ask about internal policies that affect them, such as attendance policies or dress codes, it may be harder to get their cooperation without a promise of anonymity. Try an online survey, install a suggestion box or hire a third party organization to conduct the survey to get honest results. Even if you are not able to change an unpopular policy, you'll learn what bothers them and you can explain why certain policies are in place. Sometimes people just like to know that their voice has been heard.
The only way to know what your employees and customers want and need is to ask them. Decide what information you need and develop a plan for gathering feedback. Analyze the data you receive and put it to good use. Only then will you have the inside information you need to keep your company strong and profitable for years to come.
Matthew Hoffman is a consultant and quality assurance manager at Kowal Associates, a customer service consulting firm in Boston. Visit www.kowalassociates.com or call Hoffman at 617-892-9000.