Ah, the New Year. A time for new beginnings. A chance for a fresh start, to break old bad habits and get on the right track.

At a time when people are resolving to eat less, exercise more, and spend more time with friends and family, I think quick serves might want to turn over a new leaf as well. Many fast feeders have themselves become bloated, complacent, and distracted, so let’s take advantage of the clean slate the New Year brings and resolve to make 2011 the year to get things right.

Some quick serves’ 2011 resolution lists may include items like reducing waste or finally putting up a Facebook page. But based on my own dealings with fast feeders, I’d like to suggest a couple of other areas almost all companies should take a fresh approach to this year.

The first is consumer research. In the past couple of months alone, I’ve spoken with a handful of quick serves that have conducted virtually no consumer research. Sure, owners talk to customers frequently and ask them to fill out customer-satisfaction surveys every once in a while, but they have no data-based insights about who their customers are, what’s important to them, and how they perceive the brand. They’re running their businesses by the seat of their pants.  

If you don’t know who your most valuable customers are, nor who your fiercest competition is—and if you can’t say with confidence how customers and noncustomers think you stack up compared to their other choices—you need to make consumer research a priority this year.  

Consumer research can help you target the best customers, deliver the things that really matter to them, and establish a stronger competitive advantage. Good research also produces insights that are reliable because a representative sample was surveyed. It’s not just simply those who choose to give you input or those you choose to ask. And the information was obtained through an objective, expert third party, not an owner or manager whose involvement in collecting the data inherently biases the results.

Many quick serves were established and have grown thanks to leaders who make decisions about the business based on gut or instinct, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a healthy dose of judgment and common sense are extremely valuable, even when you have solid data from consumer research. But with consumer-informed market knowledge and insights, even the most savvy leaders can reduce their risks and can evaluate options more objectively.

I understand even the most modest research projects might seem costly, especially if you’ve never spent money on research before. But thinking you don’t need consumer insights is just as costly—and perhaps a bit naïve or arrogant. Consumer research is an investment. If you spend a little money now, you’ll make more money later.

Another New Year’s resolution I would suggest is sprucing up your restaurant image and environment.  

The economic downturn made it difficult to spend money on capital improvements, but tired-looking exteriors and out-fashioned interiors are hindering many operations’ recoveries. Just because customers may be cutting back and spending less doesn’t mean they don’t notice their surroundings.  

In fact, environment matters even more these days. People want to feel good about the places where they choose to spend their precious dollars and are looking for experiences that seem special. Old and tired restaurants add to the malaise many people feel; fresh and updated ones help them escape it.

“Thinking you don’t need consumer insights is costly—and perhaps a bit naïve or arrogant.”

Your restaurant exterior is perhaps your most successful advertising, as thousands of people pass by every day. Investing in your image sends important messages—it tells consumers your business is thriving and you’re working hard to serve your guests. A new look encourages new customers to check out your establishment and may even prompt lapsed customers to visit again. It also makes an impression on your employees, since they want to feel proud of where they work, and on potential franchisees and other important stakeholders.

This is a great time to improve the way your restaurants look. While other businesses may be neglecting their images and starting to show their age, you can really stand out.

I hope you’ll agree that conducting consumer research and sprucing up your restaurant image are worthwhile goals for the year. But we all know the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they’re easy to make but hard to keep.

How many exercise machines are purchased in January only to end up serving as clothes racks by March? In fact, according to a Marist poll taken last year, 35 percent of people who made a resolution didn’t even try to keep it.  

In addition to suggesting these resolutions, I want to offer some encouragement. It’s based on a quote by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. In explaining how he survived more than three years in concentration camps, Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Just as Frankl chose to respond to his circumstances in a positive and productive way, I hope you will choose to respond to the fresh start the New Year offers. It’s certainly been a long, hard couple of years, but with the resolutions you make today, you have the opportunity to respond—and in your response lies your growth and freedom.

Here’s to a fantastic 2011!

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Marketing & Promotions, Story