It wasn’t long ago when quick-serve guests were asked to fill out paper comment cards to help brands gather both positive and negative feedback.

However, with advancements in technology and customers’ growing reliance on cell phones and tablets, traditional guest-satisfaction surveys are quickly becoming a thing of the past, replaced by digital versions that can often monitor comments and concerns in real time.

A recent survey from newBrandAnalytics, a firm that deciphers and analyzes social media feedback to translate it into operational insights for quick serves, showed that in 2012, organizations witnessed a 25 percent increase in online customer reviews.

Jamie Cohen, director of brand management for Jason’s Deli, says the company has tried a variety of channels to gather customer feedback, including QR codes, tablets that allow for direct feedback on new menu items, 1-800 numbers, and social media feeds. The brand now uses an online survey.

“With our current online system, we have the ability to review trends over time regarding how well a deli or a group of delis scored—or has improved upon scores—in certain areas, [like] hospitality, order accuracy, cleanliness, etc.,” Cohen says. “The data and reporting capabilities are far more in depth than paper surveys ever could be.”

He says the surveys’ real-time functionality lets the brand know about an issue when it occurs, allowing it to remedy the situation quickly.

“Newer methods also give us the opportunity to more effectively track trends, identify new metrics to track the guest experience, aggregate the data to change processes, and track the results, not only nationally, but also regionally or as granularly as we choose,” Cohen says.

Because managers and brands can respond more quickly when comments come in online, that system can do wonders for restaurants, says Susan Ganeshan, chief marketing officer for newBrandAnalytics. As an example, one quick-serve restaurant recently had a malfunctioning beverage machine dispensing, in the words of a customer, “fish water.”

“Finding that needle in a haystack can be difficult, but because we had the comment come in, with our method it was very easy for them to fix the machines and respond to the negativity,” Ganeshan says. “We can send an alert whenever something important like this pops up.”

Cindy Wahl, marketing director for Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint, says the company uses an iPad Mini with a custom survey app to obtain customer feedback. The brand also offers a feedback link on its website for customers to send specific comments or ask questions.

“We ask the customer if they would be willing to provide us with feedback and then let them complete the survey on the iPad. The app then gathers all responses in a report format for us,” she says. “We have used paper surveys in the past, and it was time-consuming to compile the data given. It is much easier to compile data and generate reports using a mobile app.”

Some feedback programs, like Evzdrop, let restaurants receive and respond to customer feedback and complaints while guests are still in the store.

“People at or nearby a specific location are the highest priority for [quick-service restaurants] who want to make their experience as great as it can be while they’re in the midst of dining,” says David Rush, CEO of Evzdrop.

At Evzdrop, an internal team at headquarters often monitors signals from guests and reaches out to general managers at each location when issues arise.

“Rather than filter through all of the social signals from people who might be tweeting from their living room or are not in a position to convert into a customer, we look at location as the top priority and help operators filter the signals they are given to prioritize those individuals [there] in real time,” Rush says.

“Those people in the midst of an experience are the more impressionable ones and the ones more apt to share a positive experience or share a negative experience,” he adds.

By engaging with guests in real time and harnessing their positive experiences, Rush says brands and operators are able to encourage customers to share these good experiences with their social network, “and the brand gets the lift that occurs,” he says. “Similarly, with a negative experience taking place, the sooner the brand can mitigate the impact and resolve the issue, it has significant impact.”

At Togo’s, a West Coast sandwich chain, operators are using three different methods to gather guest feedback: e-mail; social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter; and a Yelp system, with which the brand can respond to comments and concerns within 24 hours, says Renae Scott, the concept’s vice president of branding and marketing.

Early indicators from the use of the Yelp method have been a success, Scott says, as it has given the company an effective way to communicate with and engage its customers regarding issues and concerns they may have with Togo’s.

Though online and real-time feedback programs offer quick-service and fast-casual brands the opportunity to more quickly and easily react to customer comments and concerns, they come with their share of challenges, too.

Consumers can become confused if a quick-serve restaurant is constantly changing its comment card approach, and both customers and employees may be turned off by trying something new.

Another challenge lies in developing the proper incentive for customers to use a given feedback system, Cohen says. It can be difficult for the stores to maintain high feedback scores.

“This is especially true if the store managers are incentivized by the results of the survey,” he says, adding that ensuring that guest feedback gets back to the right people can be tricky.

For Uncle Maddio’s, each franchise only has a limited number of iPads, so it’s difficult to gather multiple responses at once since each customer has to wait for a device to become available.

“We still use the paper method, as well, to gather responses at all times of the day—not just when we are doing intercepts with the iPad device,” Wahl says. “They are useful in the fact that customers know they always have a way to share their comments.”

Still, Wahl says, the technology improvements in customer feedback offer greater detail than paper surveys do.

“With digital surveys, you can format the answers to provide as much detail as you’d like. We have found that with the digital surveys, customers tend to give more detailed responses when you limit the number of questions and only ask for them to type a response on a few of the questions,” she says.

“Having multiple-choice or sliding-scale options for some of the questions is better because customers get tired of typing long responses to too many questions,” Wahl adds.

As digital and online options continue to get faster and easier, Cohen says, customer feedback options should become more closely integrated with the guest experience.

And as more concepts continue to use digital feedback platforms, he expects a greater number of feedback apps to be developed and integrated into the user experience.

By relying on online reviews and comments coming in through the phone, rather than from traditional paper comment cards, he says, guest responses are now voluntary, rather than solicited.

As a result, the comments and feedback may reflect a more genuine experience and opinion of the brand.

“As operators, we want to hear from the customers, both good and bad,” Cohen says. “This is invaluable to us to be able to provide the guest the experience they want.”

Operations, Story, Jason's Deli, Togo's, Uncle Maddio's