2011 April: Survey Says

If you’re like a lot of business owners, you hold meetings, conduct brainstorming sessions and do research to figure out what your customers want. But why not ditch the guesswork and just ask them?

Customer surveys can help you discover how your customers experience your restaurant (and fix any problems), decide on new products to try, and sleuth out new, profitable locations. “Because of the proliferation of restaurant choices and the fickle nature of consumers, keeping your finger on the pulse of what consumers want and need and are willing to pay for is very important,” says Bradley Honan, senior vice president of StrategyOne, an Edelman strategic polling firm. In addition, demonstrating that you care about how your diners feel and what they want is a goodwill gesture that can result in more loyal customers.

There’s more to conducting a customer survey than slapping some multiple-choice questions on a card and sticking them on your tables. We asked the experts how to get your customers to dish.

Paper surveys are the go-to for many restaurants; they’re easy to create and you can mail them out or give them directly to customers. But now, you can also survey your customers online through an inexpensive service. The benefits to online surveys are that the data are compiled for you. That means you don’t have to copy and analyze information from hundreds of survey cards.

If you want to be even more technologically savvy, try polling your customers via social media outlets. Joe Sorge, owner of Zaffiro’s in Mequon, Wisconsin, finds out about his customers’ wants and needs using Facebook. When he asked customers for new topping suggestions, some of them liked the idea of a peanut butter-bacon-cheeseburger pizza. Sorge added the unlikely-sounding pizza to the menu and it was a hit.

Once you’ve decided on a format, you need to come up with questions that will enhance your knowledge of the customer experience. It’s tempting to ask customers for feedback on everything from your apps to the color of your napkins. But Honan recommends asking questions only about areas that you can and will take action on. For example, there’s no point in asking customers what they think about your décor if you refuse to change it. But you can ask how long the customer’s wait was if you plan to correct potential problems in that area.

Stuck on what to ask? Debbie Frank, vice president of marketing for Bravo Restaurants in Chicago, relied on internal focus groups to come up with questions for the company’s written surveys. “Each year we have a conference with our general managers,” she says. “We had them break out into groups and said, ‘What would you ask?’ Then we evaluated the questions and put the survey together.”

You may want to ask for basic demographic data, such as how often the customer dines out, his income level, age, and so on. “You might see differences in high income versus low income diners or frequent diners versus infrequent diners, and knowing your own target market helps in terms of your positioning,” says Jeff Zupancic, owner of the marketing research firm Reveal Solutions. And be sure to request the respondent’s e-mail address so you can add them to your marketing list (with their permission, of course).

The best customer survey in the world will do no good if no one fills it out. Both Honan and Zupancic recommend offering an incentive to motivate people to participate. One way to do this is to offer a discount to each person who fills out the survey. Another is to organize a drawing with a prize such as a gift certificate to a local store or an iPod. For the drawing, stick to one big prize instead of several smaller ones, suggests Honan; people are more motivated by one $150 prize than by ten $15 prizes.

Once the surveys start rolling in, be sure to read through them on a regular basis to get a feel for what you’re doing right — and what you can improve. For example, Kevin Goldfein, owner of Rosti Tuscan Kitchen in Santa Monica, goes through the restaurant’s paper surveys once a week and takes each one seriously (and he’s gotten more than 4,000). “I call it the cockroach rule, where if you see one, there are100 behind the wall,” he explains. “So if I see one comment, then there are probably 100 people thinking the same thing.” If a guest has a good experience, you can post the comment on the employee bulletin board as a motivator; if the guest has a bad experience, you can call her to make it right by apologizing, offering a discount on a future visit and letting her know how you fixed the situation.

Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer in New Hampshire.

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