Satisfied customers

When you run a national restaurant chain with 187 locations, keepingeach customer happy and loyal can be daunting. How do you know if the salad bars in your New York location are well-stocked, or if the steaks in a Florida spot are hot enough? Sizzler, the buffet-style res­taurant chain, decided the best way to find out is to ask the people who really care: the customers.

Six years ago, the company began using monthly shopping reports to find out more about what diners wanted, says Forbes Collins, Sizzler’s director of company operations. “Our guests told us that taste and flavor of food, appearance and cleanliness of the salad bar and attentiveness of wait staff were the most important triggers for us to make them highly satisfied,” he recalls.

But he adds that monthly reports didn’t tell the company enough. “You can’t peel them back and find out what you need to do to improve operations at all,” he explains.

So last year, the restaurant joined with Mindshare Technologies — a company that produces, collects and analyzes customer surveys — to col­lect customer data through links to surveys on dining receipts.

An increasing number of compa­nies have discovered the benefits of collecting data from customers. Sev­eral major players are adding simple survey requests to Web sites, dining receipts and other forms of customer communication, which means they can easily gather customer opinions and turn them into action plans.

Satisfaction is key metric

For Sizzler, the survey approach is a way to improve one of the chain’s key metrics — the customer service index (CSI). The CSI is a com­bined measure of customer happi­ness, loyalty and desire to promote the chain to others.

Under the Mindshare partnership, Sizzler includes a survey request on the bottom of all of its dining receipts at all locations. Customers call a Mindshare call center or sign on to a Mindshare survey site, and then rate different factors of their Sizzler experi­ence on a scale of one to five. They are also prompted to explain responses in their own words. In exchange, cus­tomers receive Sizzler coupons upon completion of the surveys. Sizzler reports that in the past year CSI for the chain has risen 10%.

“A year ago, we were struggling at 68%-70% for overall satisfaction, so my goal in a year was to drive satisfac­tion to 80%,” Collins says.

Two key factors in the success of Sizzler’s surveys are the timeliness and spontaneity of responses. If a custom­er keys in a negative rating, the man­ager of the poorly rated store will be notified and can listen to the customer comments verbatim — in this way, the problem can potentially be remedied within minutes.

“The missing thing in most CRM systems is the C — the customer,” says Richard Hanks, chairman and president of Mindshare. “Big CRM systems are all aimed at data such as demographics, likes and dislikes, but they don’t tell you how the chicken strips are in a particular store.”

Hertz, another Mindshare client, asks for feedback at every touch point. “One key is getting both posi­tive and negative comments,” says Brian Dickerson, staff VP of cus­tomer care at Hertz. “It’s important to understand what the customer thinks you’re doing right [as well as] wrong, so you can concentrate on what makes the customer happy.”

Neither Sizzler nor Hertz use their surveys to gather any extra infor­mation. “We don’t want to take advantage of that courtesy on the customer’s part to give us informa­tion,” explains Dickerson. However, Hertz is able to use its customer database on the back end to identify whether the responding customer is at a certain loyalty level.

Surveys offer competitive edge

Mindshare and other providers of customer surveys give companies a competitive edge in a variety of ways. Survey results provide instantly actionable feedback from individual customers, and manag­ers even have the option to call a customer for a personal apology. Customers who have had a prob­lem solved for them are even more loyal than customers with no prob­lems, Hanks points out.

In addition, the coupons that some companies, like Sizzler, employ to encourage customer responses bring repeat business at a minimal cost.

Hanks says that another bonus is a potential solution to turnover in the service profession. “If I play a positive message about a particular server in front of the whole staff, that server will become more loyal, and others [will] work harder to get some of that praise,” he says.

Companies such as iCongo and SurveyMonkey also allow clients to create customer surveys measur­able in real time. Both Mindshare and iCongo assess the same general indicators — friendliness of staff, cleanliness, product satisfaction — to create a picture of an individual store’s performance.

“Customers today are more demanding,” says Steven Kramer, EVP and CTO of iCongo. “They’re expecting a much higher level of cus­tomer service. Gauging satisfaction is all the more important.”

This fiscal year, Sizzler says 78.5% of customers are highly satisfied, with more than 39,000 customers reporting. Sales at Sizzler locations posting 79% highly satisfied or better are flat or up.

“As consumers expect more, we realize that just having a satisfied con­sumer isn’t good enough,” says Col­lins. “Satisfied guests don’t become brand ambassadors, but highly satis­fied guests do.

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