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The instant era: How to navigate customer feedback in the age of online reviews

By Tony Zidar

Today, restaurants receive more customer reviews than ever before. With access to apps like Facebook, Google, and Trip Advisor at their fingertips, customers have the ability to post a review before they have even paid for their meal. According to a study by BrightLocal in 2018, 86 per cent of customers read reviews for local businesses. More importantly, 68 per cent said a positive review was more likely to equate to a visit. Customer reviews provide franchises with invaluable insight on performance, spot emerging problems, and present opportunities for growth. In other words, the brand’s online reputation has the potential to either make or break the business. Therefore, it is imperative for companies to effectively and efficiently manage online feedback.

It may be challenging for franchises to maintain a consistent, high level of customer satisfaction across all its locations, whether it is four or 400. But online and social media management does not have to be as daunting as it sounds. In this article, the author shares his recommendations and strategies on managing customer feedback, increasing franchisee profitability, and preserving the company’s overall brand.

Determine where the business stands

The first question a franchisor should ask themselves is, “What is my brand’s current online reputation?” For example, how many five-star versus one-star reviews has the restaurant received? Which platform houses the majority of customer reviews? Are there any common themes among reviewers? Which franchise locations are performing better than others?

While this information can always be collected manually, it takes a significant amount of time and resources to discover patterns that will actually prove beneficial to franchisors and franchisees.

Third-party platforms, such as Chatmeter, consolidate reviews across multiple channels for various locations, providing up-to-the-minute information on performance and customer sentiment. Instead of sifting through reviews, these platforms collect, analyze, and display trends and key insights in digestible chunks of information on one convenient dashboard. For the franchisor, this provides a snapshot on every location’s performance and summarizes important metrics like cleanliness, customer service, quality of food, and timeliness. For the franchisee, the platform allows them to see areas they can improve upon while engaging with customers directly and fostering strong two-way relationships.

The number of stars a company receives can affect the business, both positively and negatively.
The number of stars a company receives can affect the business, both positively and negatively.

As a result, what was once a challenging and demanding part of the customer-service industry has now become vastly manageable due to new and emerging brand-management platforms. Another important facet for the business to look into is reputation management; it is worth investing in a third-party platform that can help take the business to the next level by detecting problems before they grow into full-fledged issues.

Embrace everything, even the negative

Franchisors have tried-and-tested processes and systems in place to guide franchisees through every facet of the business, from day-to-day operations to customer service and marketing. A good franchisor should spend one-on-one time with new franchisees, offering guidance related to standard processes outlining when and how to respond to online reviews. While franchisees are heavily involved in the physical operations of their business, especially at the onset, franchisors should step in and support where they can, whether it is helping franchisees reply to customer reviews or training staff on how to respond effectively to consumer feedback. With proper training and guidance, franchisees should begin to feel confident handling customer feedback directly. That said, franchisors should always be accessible for answering questions and providing advice on more pressing concerns.

As a franchisee, it is important not to take criticism personally. Instead, one must embrace every piece of feedback and view it as an opportunity for growth. A negative comment can be turned into a positive one when addressed efficiently and with sincerity. A general rule of thumb franchisees should follow online is to pretend the customer is standing in front of them—be receptive to feedback, acknowledge their concerns, and make every effort to resolve the problem. Consumers appreciate when franchisees are attentive and pay attention to detail, as it shows they are invested in improving the overall guest experience.

However, it is equally important to recognize positive feedback with the team. If a customer leaves a review applauding a staff member, the franchisee must share it with the local team to encourage others. If a particular dish on the menu receives appreciation, one must consider integrating it more comprehensively into the company’s marketing efforts. By listening to customers and reacting accordingly, the franchisee can ensure they are staying a step ahead.

Implementing change where it matters most

Although it can be tempting to try and appease every customer who reviews or comments on the brand, as a franchisor, one must learn to block out the background noise and focus on what is truly important. Franchisees must remember a negative review does not necessarily equate to a bigger problem. However, if they begin to spot common themes among reviews, especially for a particular location, that would be the time to really pay attention. Franchisees can learn from past mistakes and use the information to improve upon their current customer offering, whether it is customer service, front of house (FOH), or food quality.

Dishes that perform very well can be incorporated on the core menu while others can be replaced with something new.
Dishes that perform very well can be incorporated on the core menu while others can be replaced with something new.

It is a franchisor’s responsibility to be cognizant of emerging trends. While some trends stick around for years, others disappear as quickly as they came. A franchisee must recognize their identity as a brand, and should not feel the need to stray too far from their core. For example, a steakhouse is popular for its delicious steaks, not its vegetarian offerings. A company does not necessarily have to be all things to all people. Franchises must not confuse their guests by adopting a “flavour of the month” approach, but rather, stick to the core of the brand. Adopting changes too frequently and too quickly can place a lot of unnecessary stress on franchisees as it leads to additional staff training and stock turnover. The key to achieving success is a fine line between balancing ever-changing customer desires and maintaining the brand’s overall identity. As a franchisor, it is critical to understand that one’s goal is to increase franchisee profitability.

A good way to test whether or not a dish is the right fit for the company is to introduce new menu items as feature dishes or specials. If the company receives multiple customer requests for additional vegetarian or gluten-free options, it would be worthwhile to test how the dishes perform as a feature item first. Dishes that perform very well can be incorporated on the core menu while others can be replaced with something new. Another option is to introduce a new menu item to franchisor-owned stores before rolling it out to all franchise locations. This serves as a test kitchen by providing the franchise with an opportunity to re-adjust and improve upon dishes before they are expanded to all the locations. It is easier for a handful of stores to gauge an item’s success rather than being forced to back track with multiple locations. These tried-and-tested formulas allow franchises to experiment with food trends and keep things fresh for customers without compromising on the essence of their brand.

Learn from the best (and worst)

Multi-location franchisees often present their individual challenges. Franchisees can determine the factors behind the success of their top-rated locations—speak with local franchises and their management teams to see if any particular insights stand out and try implementing them across all locations. Likewise, they can visit locations that are underperforming to identify areas of improvement. Perhaps, the staff requires a refresher on customer service or there is a gap in management that needs to be addressed! While this may be obvious, it is a step that is often overlooked by franchises.

In today’s ever-growing digital environment, a rise in customer reviews and social media is unavoidable. A brand’s online reputation has never been more important—Google is the first place people visit when seeking information as well as the first place customers turn to when they want to vocalize their experience. Each customer interaction, whether positive or negative in tone, is important; however, one must not let this information hinder their franchise, but learn to use it to their advantage. The right tools can equip franchisees and franchisors alike with invaluable insight and knowledge on how to make their company stronger and better than before. By being attuned to their customers’ responses and reactions, franchises can stay one step ahead at all times and maximize profitability.

Tony Zidar is senior vice-president of operations for Mr. Mikes SteakhouseCasual, a Canadian steakhouse company. For more information, contact him via e-mail at tzidar@rammp.net.

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