Retail 2.0: The Social Restaurant

Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 17 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe's Southwestern Grill).

What would you do if you knew that 70 percent of the people sitting in your stores were unhappy with the service they just received? What if retailers got real-time feedback—courtesy of social network tools—so their teams could know of those reactions when the customers were still in the store?

A chain's commitment to making customer comments public—before knowing what that feedback will be—says so much about its confidence in quality. Isn't showing this transparency through unedited real-time feedback what social networks are all about?

It's time to socially enable retail—especially restaurants. We need to leverage the power of social media inside our brick-and-mortar restaurants. I'm not talking about tweeting out specials or getting "Liked" on Facebook. I'm talking about using these tools for interacting with customers while they are in the restaurant, or in the store. I'm talking about exposing our business operations to the Internet in real time. This is a level of transparency that will make most operators cringe at the thought, not to mention a level of engagement that will have significant impact to the bottom line.

Being responsible for running the IT for a large restaurant chain, I am often trying to think of ways we could better leverage technology in our restaurants. As I have said before, I think that social media will revolutionize the way businesses operate, just as the Web did in the mid-1990s. We know social media is all about branding and marketing, but what about operations? Why isn't anyone focusing a significant amount of energy thinking about socially enabling operations?

But what do I mean by a Social Restaurant?Take, for example, a quick-service restaurant that put up an LCD screen in its dining room. On that screen was a poll that encouraged customers to text their satisfaction with the service they received at this visit. The poll would update in real time (conferences often have these types of polls). The screen could display not only the real-time results but results for the week, the month and the year. Chains would get genuine feedback from their customers in real time that could be seen not only by other customers but by the crew, as well. Think about the motivating impact that knowledge would have with the crew in real time!

Now take it a step further and place the results of that poll on your Facebook fan page. Let your fans see how customers feel about your service before they leave to go to your restaurant. Would you have the fortitude to expose that type of information to the Web? Why not?

What if you enticed customers to send their feedback text by giving them a $2 gift? Rather than a plastic gift card, though, you send them an eGiftSocial gift that automatically writes on their Facebook wall that they received it (and encourages those who see it to purchase one, too)—"Main Street Burgers just gave Jocelyn a medium fry!"

What if there was another screen in the restaurant that displayed Twitter and Facebook sentiment? People in the restaurant could read what people outside the restaurant are saying about your brand while they eat their meals.

Do you think your loyal fans might defend you if they saw negative sentiment in real time? Are they defending you today?

If you owned a fine-dining restaurant, would you consider handing your guests an iPad with their check, asking them to write a review on Yelp? Why not? What better time to get their feedback memorialized than just after they finished a nice bottle of wine and some scrumptious desert?

For locations with a drive-thru, would you be willing to set up a Twitter account that provides real-time information on how long the line was in the drive thru? "Dallas_Burgers_on_Main: DT times at 2:03." Do you think you might convince some people to buy their lunch from you if they were in a hurry? What about posting streaming video of the drive-thru stack to the Web?What if you monitored Yelp for negative reviews and sent "We're sorry" gift cards to those customers who had a bad experience? What if you then flagged those cards to alert the manager when they were used so she could apologize in person? (I actually know of a restaurateur doing this today, and I think it's awesome.)

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. None of these ideas would be outrageously expensive to implement. The biggest hurdle is getting people used to the idea of exposing this information to everyone—customers and staff alike—in the restaurant. It's one thing to fret over a negative review on Yelp. It's quite different to see a screen showing that 70 percent of the people in the dining room aren't happy with the service they just received.

It's an intimidating thought for sure. But if you think about it, wouldn't the impact be positive? If there is a tweet on the screen complaining about a dirty bathroom, don't you think someone would rush in to clean it? If the guests are complaining about slow service, the manager can act on that real-time feedback. (Editor's Note: What if this feedback impacted bonuses for managers and the employees responsible? What if they received a reward for maintaining a satisfaction rating above X?)

The point of this new world of social tools and transparency is the understanding that nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. What is important is how you deal with those mistakes. Your customers will forgive most problems if they believe you take them seriously and addressed them.

The other consideration is to make sure you don't overreact. The news is littered with examples of companies overreacting to negative sentiment in the social world: people pulling ads or even scrapping packaging because a small group of people objects. There will always be "haters" and "trolls." As long as you approach feedback with a level head, things should be fine.

Term Of The Week: "Me-tailers"—Retailers that understand a solid social strategy requires having a unique relationship with each customer and interacting with each customer on his or her own terms. "We have implemented a social CRM system to be a better Me-tailer by understanding our customers at a much deeper level."

What do you think? Leave a comment, or E-mail me at [email protected]. You can also follow me on Twitter: @todd_michaud.

Would you believe I ran a half marathon (13.1 miles)? You can follow my Ironman training at www.irongeek.me.

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