Customer feedback: Why you need it and how to get it

Customers complain more than they praise. Everyone in this business knows that. But is there more to complain about? Or are customers only motivated to speak up when they’re annoyed?

Our first reaction as operators is to assume that all our seemly satisfied customers are just happily paying their checks and scooting out the door, but that may not be true. Some studies estimate that for every customer complaint received, there are at least 26 other complaints that are never expressed. Why? Often because customers believe that no one—even the manager—cares if they’re satisfied or not. Instead, they just make the decision to never return.

That’s why it’s so critical that we actively pursue customer feedback. In addition to pinpointing problems that we may have been unaware of, it’s also a way to find out what is working. Then, we can maximize on that success by recognizing and rewarding employees and utilizing those successful strategies in other areas of our operation.

To get the most out of customer feedback, try these tips:

  • Set objectives. Do you want to know if your customers use your new web site to order carry-out or if the staff was attentive and friendly? Before you write anything, sit down and evaluate the areas where you get the most complaints—wait time, cleanliness, etc.—and the opportunities you’d like to explore in your operation. It’s fine to have more than one objective as long as you’re completely clear what those objectives are. Then, tailor the questions to generate the responses that you’ll really use.
  • Be careful. Henry Ford once said, “If we had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” When asking questions to improve your restaurant, include some general questions, such as, “Do you typically select light menu items?” instead of “How can we improve our menu?” You’ll find more information that you can really use and, frankly, it’s up to you and your team to be creative in finding solutions… not your customers.
  • Include open and closed questions. A survey should be able to be designed in less than 10 minutes. More than that and it will either be tossed or filled out haphazardly. Begin with a series of closed questions (rate service, select “yes” or “no,” circle menu choices of interest, etc.). Then include no more than three open-ended questions. They often generate the most feedback, but they’re also the most work. Tailor questions that provoke thought and encourage honesty, such as, “Why—or why not—would you recommend this restaurant to a friend?”
  • Ask for details. One of the biggest mistakes questionnaires make is including questions like, “Did you enjoy our restaurant?” No matter how customers rate their responses, you can’t use that information to make improvements. Instead ask about the accuracy of the order, the quality and presentation of the food, the service of the staff, etc.
  • Offer an incentive. Nobody wants to fill out a survey, but the offer of free coffee while they do so (complete with some chocolates) certainly helps. Arrange for drawings (customers fill out survey cards and throw them into fishbowls) and offer discounts on meals or other incentives to draw response.
  • Don’t leave them hanging. Sometimes customers—especially regulars—wonder what you do with those surveys and their great ideas for more pasta dishes or wine tasting nights. If you want your customers to believe that you really do care about their input, inform them of your findings and the changes you’ve made as a result of their feedback.

Beyond Comment Cards

Postcard-sized, paper surveys are fine (and often effective), but today’s technology and marketing services offer plenty of opportunities to generate even more feedback. Here are a few additional suggestions beyond comment cards:

  • Mystery shopping. Sure, it’s been done a million times before, but it’s still one of your best options for finding out what happens when you’re not there. (Just the threat of it can be helpful to some team members!)
  • Web site evaluation. Many sites offer feedback sections with incentives. It’s easy to implement… you receive a completed survey and your customer receives a coupon bounceback.
  • Toll-free phone numbers. Some people would rather chat than print or type and with many services you have the opportunity to probe into responses… providing you with even more valuable feedback.

The following sources were consulted for these articles:
“How to Generate Customer Feedback,”
National Restaurant Association,

Service That Sells! Monthly Update, January, 2005,

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