Building Your Brand – Customer feedback is essential to establishing and maintaining standards

Food Service and Hospitality, September 2007. David Lipton

The success of your business is built on your brands image, standards and reputation. What are you doing to protect them? If you don’t know the answer to that question, your business may already be in serious trouble. But if you have an answer, you still need to make sure it’s the right one.

Anybody can open a restaurant - so why do investors pay large premiums for recognized brands? Why do they invest millions of dollars to keep their brand visible and to define a brand promise? The reasons are simple: a strong, healthy brand makes for a better investment, and is better for business. The same things that will make a franchise popular with investors : consistency, familiarity, delivering on a brand promise - are what ultimately make a franchise popular with its customers.

So, how do you do it? The obvious answer is to get feedback from your customers. Some common tools companies’ use for this are:

  • In-store comment cards
  • Online questionnaires
  • In-person surveys
  • Telephone surveys

Programs like these are inexpensive, easy to maintain, and require little effort to administer. This makes them an attractive solution for the cost efficient owner, but it doesn’t make them the right solution.

Too many companies go for short-term savings, failing to protect the one aspect of their business that matters most - their brand. For one, the customers who volunteer to participate in these programs are going to be the ones with very strong reactions to their experience. You’ll hear primarily from customers who were either very satisfied or very upset. This leaves the vast majority of your customers - whose experiences lie somewhere between the two - without a voice.

But you should consider something far more important. You need to recognize that even though they’re similar in many ways, your expectations as an owner or investor are significantly different, and more demanding, than those of your customers. Generally speaking, customers do not:

  • Expect employees to suggest appetizers, sides, dessert, larger drinks, and other things to increase the amount of their purchase
  • Complain if staff attire isn’t impeccably clean, bright, pressed and matching.
  • Expect menu panels to be laid out in a specific pattern that’s identical in every store in the chain.
  • Make complaints when employees mix them a drink with more alcohol than they’ve paid for.
  • Notice when they aren’t handed a frequent customer card or other kinds of promotional material with their purchase.
  • See the need for a receipt to be offered after every transaction.
  • Know when they’re being given the wrong information about the ingredients of a menu item.

That’s not to say it isn’t extremely important to listen to what your customers are telling you, or how they feel about their experience. And it doesn’t mean that voluntary feedback programs can’t help a business understand where it’s succeeding and where it’s falling short. It’s simply that the feedback you get may say the experience satisfied your customer, but that’s not all that is required to satisfy your bottom line.

Owners and investors must understand that customers are not trained to notice many of the details that are vital in assuring brand standards are being met. A brand promise only has value if it’s being delivered consistently, every time a customer visits a location. Flaws that may go unnoticed in any number of areas, minor as they might seem, can dramatically impact business in the long run.

Believe it or not, the idea behind this is quite similar to a theory called “Broken Windows,” which is famous for having helped facilitate the revitalization of New York City in the mid-1990’s. The theory posits that if a building has one or two broken windows that don’t get repaired, over time, it is likely more will be broken. Because of what was first an unattended minor problem, the condition of the building deteriorates. Thieves soon find there is little to deter them from breaking in, and from there, things get worse.

The same pattern can happen to a business. Small problems get overlooked until they become bigger problems, patterns that aren’t corrected become the norm, and before long the location has become a weak link in the chain. And little things don’t just wreak havoc on a single location, but on the franchise as a whole. A huge part of what makes franchising work is uniformity and familiarity. Customers expect the food, the service, the attention to detail and price, to be the same whether they’re in Pembroke, B.C. or Paris. When one location is bad, the entire chain looks bad. The impression is that the chain itself has low standards, and for that, the entire chain suffers.

So, what should you be doing?

When it comes to brand image, don’t play games with your investment or cheapen the business. A proper, comprehensive assessment should include:

The successful owner understands that for their business, they need to know more than whether or not the customer was satisfied. Successful owners keep control of their business by setting specific standards and ensuring they measure up to them. They know they must invest now to maintain their standards and image in the long run, which is vital to developing a thriving business in the future.

So, what kind of owner are you?

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