Survey Says...

- Today's consumer research extends beyond comment cards and surveys

By David Lipton in Foodservice and Hospitality

How would you describe your visit to our establishment today? It's a question restaurants often ask patrons on comment cards or paper surveys when searching for insight into customer satisfaction. But do the answers provide the kind of information you truly need? While ambiguous questions on comment cards may be answered with high praise or harsh criticism, repeat customers who are consistently satisfied with your product are usually silent. They often see no need to comment because they like the way things are. This isn't to say that traditional surveys and comment cards aren't effective research tools - they can be extremely useful, but it's important to ask simple, direct questions.That said, even with a well designed comment card, people are often in a hurry and may end up jotting down answers that are poorly explained. A good variation on this approach, then, is an online "comment card" program allowing customers to provide feedback via the Internet at their leisure. Still, it's unfortunate that many companies never seek any other consumer research alternatives, especially when there's a veritable universe beyond paper surveys and comment cards.To make an educated choice as to which method will be most beneficial to your operation, you should conduct research before you research.Following are some examples of research methods beyond the realm of the comment card:

Focus Groups

A focus group essentially pays people for their opinions, and it requires a carefully coordinated team effort.You need to find a way to bring the right mix of people together: those who have heard of your company, those who haven't, those who love your service, and those who could care less. After gathering the guinea pigs, plan your approach. But be warned - "focus" must be the key word in focus group. It's important to know what you need from your participants beforehand and be sure to hire a skilled leader to keep the group on track.

Follow-up Interviews

Verbally surveying customers after they've made a purchase has proven to be successful and has great public relations benefits, as it makes customers feel appreciated. Personal interviews require more time and have a higher cost associated with them, while phone interviews can be conducted quickly and allow you to reach more geographical areas.

Exit Interviews

Exit interviews are simple to coordinate and execute. The idea is to question people as they leave your establishment, focusing on those who exit empty-handed. There are two important requirements for this to be effective: ask relevant questions, and employ a highly skilled interviewer to keep interviewees on your doorstep for the necessary time.

Rap Sessions

Rap sessions involve bringing staff together in a neutral setting with an unbiased mediator who can lead them through a group discussion of operational procedures, company policies and customer service. Understanding the employee point of view and listening to their ideas can be an enlightening process.

Mystery Shopping

Mystery shopping is a way to look at your operation from the customer's perspective. Mystery shoppers can make anonymous monthly visits and score your establishment according to a checklist created for your company, tailored to your customer service goals. This method provides great insight into how your business is operating when the manager is absent, and can let you know how employees are serving customers.

Competition Analysis

Don't neglect the other side of the fence. You can learn a lot from your competition by simply asking the right questions. How does their service differ from yours? What about their atmosphere? Are you competing for the same market? A visit to the competition allows you to compare them against your own standards to determine how you fare.

Overwhelmed? Don't be. Each of these methods can be used successfully in the right situation with the proper planning. Hiring a research professional can also help to drastically reduce costs and frustration, as these professionals can help you use the outcome of the research to its maximum potential, allowing you to clearly focus on staying ahead.

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