Industry News | August 25, 2011

How Much is Too Much?

In the age of social media, quick-service restaurants are increasingly championing their total accessibility with customers.

Many quick-service brands are harnessing the power of instant communication to directly link with fans in an effort to gain their input on the brand, create loyal guests, and recapture dissatisfied customers.           

Take Pennsylvania-based Saladworks. After a number of guests inquired about the addition of soup to the menu—despite the presence of 13 soup varieties at its restaurants—Saladworks changed its store design to better highlight its soup offerings. Subsequently, systemwide soup sales climbed more than 20 percent.

“We believe that if we’re not listening to our customers, then we’re losing something,” says Saladworks vice president of brand services Jena Henderson.

Then the company opened the floodgates. On April 26, the company announced that its guest relations website, SaladworksListens.com, had been advanced to include real-time, instant responses.

“We’re a system that wants feedback … and that feedback doesn’t always come when our doors are open,” Henderson says, noting that the Saladworks office now includes 24/7 staff dedicated to handling guest relations.

While Saladworks’ intent is to showcase the brand’s dedication to its customers and its commitment to an enjoyable in-store experience, some marketing experts wonder if such easy accessibility opens a Pandora’s box of problems.

“I’d tell companies to be extremely careful [about being so accessible]. The idea sounds good in theory, but has inherent risks,” says Kip Knight, head of KnightVision Marketing and former chief marketing officer for Taco Bell.

Knight says putting one’s resources into a response team could result in a constant fire drill and dissuade prospective franchisees from joining the brand. Easy access could also compel ill-driven competitors to bombard a unit with complaints.

“If the change team comes parachuting in every time someone has a negative thought, that can consume a lot of time and energy,” Knight says.

While having franchisees respond directly to frustrated consumers might also seem like a wise move, Knight urges caution.

“If I’m the franchisee getting a lot of complaints about price, then what am I supposed to do about that?” Knight says. “That’s something out of my control.”

Henderson says a principal challenge of increased accessibility is growth. As Saladworks, a fast-charging brand of nearly 100 stores, continues its expansion, increased feedback could prove daunting and cumbersome, she says. Guests could easily become turned off if brands invite comments and pledge responsiveness, yet fail to make personal contact.

Red Mango founder Dan Kim, who actively seeks direct contact with guests at the store level and through social media, says he sees the same challenges at his frozen-yogurt eatery, which seeks to double its unit count in the next year.

“How do we replicate this personal style of communication without losing the voice of the brand? That’s a real concern,” Kim says, adding that Red Mango may hire brand ambassadors or encourage store-level communication.

With such accessibility, there’s also the thorny issue of comments being representative of many and not simply one vocal customer. To combat this, Red Mango’s leadership team adopts a diverse, multilayered approach: investigate the frequency and geographical source of comments, validate comments with traditional market research, solicit input from heavy users, and hold focus group meetings with store managers and franchisees.

“We don’t use the feedback in and of itself; it has to be a loop,” Kim says. “The concept always has to be evolving because the customers are inside that loop and they’re evolving, too.”

By Daniel P. Smith

News and information presented in this release has not been corroborated by QSR, Food News Media, or Journalistic, Inc.