"Service was slow." "My meal came out incorrect." While notes such as these are hardly what any restaurant manager wants to see scribbled on a customer comment card, the criticism can be constructive, if it's addressed effectively.
Staff and students at the University of Delaware's School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management recently tested several types of customer feedback tools to understand more about each one's effectiveness. The tests were conducted at the University's Vita Nova dining room, a fully student-run restaurant which operates as a Mediterranean-themed buffet during lunch hours and in the evening transforms into a white-linen fine dining restaurant.
Traditional comment cards
The first tool employed at Vita Nova was the traditional comment card. Their benefits are clear: they're inexpensive, solicit immediate guest feedback and can be acted on quickly by restaurant staff. The manager can review cards almost instantly and look for any concerning remarks. Of course, if the restaurant is too busy, the manager will likely wait until the end of the night to assess the cards, negating their ability to lead to a speedy resolution.
In addition, to obtain any type of statistical information or reporting benefits, comment cards must often be coded into computer software, such as Microsoft Excel (www.microsoft.com) or SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences). This data entry requires time and is susceptible to human error.
Online comment cards
For its next evaluation, the University used Restaurant Quality Management Systems'Web-based restaurant evaluation tool (www.restaurantqms.com). Using this system, guests are presented a website address and an individualized server code, corresponding to their particular server for that dining occasion. Guests are then asked to visit the website address, input the server code and add their comments. While this method is good for aggregate feedback, immediate guest feedback is lost.
On the positive side, the quantity of the comments increased significantly, as guests can fill out the cards at their leisure. What's more, comments posted using a keyboard are likely to be longer and more specific than those quickly scratched down table-side. In addition, this method allows the restaurant to create an online guest database since the guests are required to enter an e-mail address. These can be used later for promotions and other customer relationship management activities.
Electronic comment trays
The final tool tested was the electronic comment tray by Long Range Systems (www.pager.net). The system uses a handheld tray with a small screen where questions are posted. Answers are input using small buttons on the device face (i.e., yes, no, excellent, good, fair, poor, etc.). On the plus side, guests are very willing to play with the device. In addition, the system will send a message to a pager worn by the manager when certain feedback is input, such as when the guest answers "no" to the question, "Will you come back to our restaurant?" The manager's pager indicates the specificity of the negative response and the corresponding table number, giving the manager the option to approach the table before the guest leaves.
Using this system, data is stored electronically and is sent to Long Range Systems'servers on a nightly basis. The information is then compiled and sent as reports to management personnel. The system tracks statistics about the restaurant's overall satisfaction score, as well as scores for each server. However, electronic comment trays are relatively expensive compared to paper versions and preclude guests from elaborating on answers.
Results from this experiment indicate that restaurants would be best served to use more than one tool. Each has pluses and minuses that together create a more inclusive and effective guest feedback management program.
Cihan Cobanoglu, Ph.D., CHTP, is associate professor of hospitality information technology at the University of Delaware . Share your questions and comments with Dr. Cobanoglu online at htmagazine.com or e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.