In today’s competitive foodservice industry, it’s becoming increasingly important for brands to engage guests and employees in a more meaningful and personal manner.
by Steve Prodger
Vice President, Food Services
Leading restaurant chains are executing tactics to streamline communication between executives, employees and customers. The end goal? To gain a better understanding of the ways customers want to be engaged and then use that information to earn lifelong, loyal clientele.
But the need for improved engagement strategies isn’t limited to large chain foodservice providers. Establishments of all sizes need to be proactive about identifying and implementing the engagement tactics that are critical for keeping pace with five key emerging trends in today’s foodservice industry.
1. Customer Experience Management (CEM)
An executive-level commitment to a CEM program isn’t enough to truly engage guests in today’s competitive foodservice environment. To achieve real results, brand executives must equip frontline operators with the tools and resources they need to positively impact the customer experience.
This begins by leveraging innovative software solutions with access points located on the “frontlines” of the customer experience. Simple tools like CEM alerts can be activated to reinforce positive employee behaviors or to reach customers who report a negative experience with the brand.
For example, customer receipts can be tailored to ask guests if a specific employee had a positive influence on their dining experience. If so, the guest can be asked to identify the employee and describe how that team member made their experience special. An email is then dispatched to the store manager, enabling them to reinforce the behavior by congratulating – and perhaps rewarding – the individual staff member.
It’s not just about the quality of the food anymore: customers want to have a memorable brand experience. By recognizing that the guest experience is a key differentiator among restaurants today, executives and employees can create experiences that will be seared in their customers’ minds.
2. Social Media
Social media has transformed the way we communicate, giving brands the ability to empower employees and consumer advocates with tools to share their experiences with family, friends and coworkers.
As a younger, social and tech-savvy generation comes of age, social media has to be part of every foodservice brand’s overall marketing strategy. From a brand perspective, social media makes sense – it’s a straightforward and cost-effective way for brands of any size to communicate directly with consumers. Encouraging positive brand recommendations via social platforms, like Facebook, allow word-of-mouth to spread virally. Studies have shown just how effective this can be. Econsultancy has reported that 90% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know; 70% trust recommendations from others even if they don’t know them. EMarketer data shows similar findings, indicating that consumer reviews are nearly 12 times more trusted than when that message comes from brands themselves.
Multi-site brands should also consider managing Twitter accounts for each market to better engage and communicate with members of each specific community. Likewise, restaurant operators should encourage the use of social media tools by engaging with Yelp bloggers, displaying Foursquare signage and executing other strategies that equip employees and guests to deliver messaging about the brand experience.
Mobile technology is transforming the retail business environment. Restaurants of all sizes need to begin using mobile to interact with staff and guests, or they run the risk of being left behind by the mobile revolution.
It’s clear that restaurant consumers value speed. Mobile strategies like online ordering apps can be leveraged to keep pace with customers’ expectations for quick, convenient service, and to promote immediate interactions with the brand. For restaurant operators and multi-unit managers, having access to customer experience information is key.
On the staff side of the equation, employees can be equipped to use mobile devices for in-store audits, customer alerts, real-time service metrics to manage speed of service, and other functions that are critical to the delivery of an exceptional customer experience.
4. Employee Engagement
Smart brands recognize that engaged employees drive business success and foster brand culture. In the new foodservice paradigm, the same technologies that are being used to track guest feedback can be used to gain insight into employee mindsets. Turnover in food service is high – in some cases more than 100% per year. Employee surveys are the foundation of understanding key employee concerns, and addressing the drivers of employee loyalty. If there are any individual employee issues, these can be quickly rectified to ensure employees feel managers are listening to them.
As the brand’s “front lines” of service, employees must be kept engaged and motivated. Relevant incentive programs promote positive guest interactions by maintaining employee morale and validating each employee’s contribution to the brand. An individual call-out by the shift manager for a job well done, based on customer feedback, goes a long way towards keeping the focus on the customer experience.
To engage this generation of foodservice employees, restaurant operators need to perform careful hiring, staffing their establishments with people who accurately represent the brand and are committed to giving customers a consistent experience.
Although employees create brand culture and great customer experiences, brand management is responsible for assembling and engaging a group of individuals that is capable of meeting the brand’s standards. On a practical level, this task is simple, but not easy. It is achieved by always recruiting staff who are passionate about providing the best possible guest experience, constantly getting feedback from guests on how each location is measuring up, and then putting in place the CEM processes to fix the key issues. This should happen every day, in every location.
5. Dynamic Segmentation
Foodservice brands need the ability to extract data from customer reports so they can analyze trends, explore hypotheses, measure impact and discover brand insights – in real-time.
For many, this means deploying tools to understand the behaviors of different segments of their customer base. While some tools can be leveraged to segment service schedules (e.g. lunch as a functional meal service vs. dinner as a dining experience), other tools can be used to capture insights about traffic patterns, understand why people are patronizing the restaurant (e.g. occasions), define core customers and their expectations, and evaluate the behaviors and perceptions of first-time guests.
The success of dynamic segmentation hinges on the brand’s ability to transform customer feedback into actionable items. Tools like loyalty points, point-of-sale surveys and scorecards (e.g. “Three Things the Brand Can Improve”) are effective tools for culling actionable items from dynamic segmentation tactics.
Undoubtedly, the implementation of strategies to address emerging trends in foodservice should be tailored to each brand’s unique goals and circumstances. But on the whole, the resources and energy invested in creating more meaningful engagements with customers and employees will ultimately determine each brand’s ability to remain competitive on a go-forward basis. In a hotly contested battle for consumer wallet share in a tight economy, success will lie with the companies that can deliver superior service through listening to their most important advisor: the guest.
About the Author:
Steve Prodger plays an instrumental role in formulating and executing the organization’s business development strategy on a global basis. With more than 12 years of experience in the multi-unit retail space, Steve has gained a keen awareness of the industry drivers and specific needs of the market. His deep domain expertise and track record for forging high-value relationships with clients across a variety of industries has led to highly successful results for some of the world’s best known foodservice and retail brands. Prior to joining Empathica in 2005, Steve held various executive and account management roles in the high-tech sector with such organizations as Dell Computers Inc.
Steve holds a B.A. in Economics and Computer Science with a focus on strategy and change management.