Are the technology skeptics right?

Ask the technology skeptics whether they think technology has helped or hindered interpersonal communication, and invariably they’ll offer muted grumblings like “talk much, say little, connect less.”

In their minds, services like texting, Facebook, and Twitter have done plenty to help people broadcast what’s on their minds from the highest mountain, but done little to actually facilitate meaningful communication. In other words, the more we become digitally linked, synced, and wired, the less we establish genuine relationships.

They do have a point. It could be easy to agree with the skeptics that something has been lost—that something has been left off the modern menu of restaurant-diner relations.

“Love Can’t Be Automatic”

Dining remains one of the most intimate and important human experiences—a celebration of good food, service, style, atmosphere, and of course good company. When you think about it, driving a genuine personal experience in the casual-dining and quick-service restaurant space shouldn’t be that difficult. 

The experience of warmth and connectedness is as memorable when the waiter brings you your meal as it is when the friendly drive-through attendant asks you the “light” to “sweet” balance in your coffee rather than taking the order on faith. That’s the way to drive true restaurant loyalty and enhanced revenue: through engagement.

Today, technology (in the form of smartphones, tablets, and on-the-go social media, as well as the omni-channel loyalty and CRM programs they augment) is bringing back a bit of that dining nostalgia—and finding new and creative ways to monetize it. The reality is that people have changed far less than our technology. The craving for a genuine, personal dining experience remains as true now as when McDonalds first opened its doors in 1955, or when its first class of 15 Hamburger University students graduated in 1961.

The disconnect between truly “human” customer service and “just getting it done” customer service began some years ago, and it continues to accelerate with the help of technology. Yet some people out there truly “get it,” and are saying, Stop! Speaking “at” people isn't enough.

Case in point, a guy who gets it: Ramon De Leon, a former Domino’s Pizza delivery guy turned social media marketing director for a six-store Domino's franchise in Chicago. “Love can’t be automatic,” he says. It's one of the most memorable sentences I've heard in years. He said it passionately at the RAMP Advanced Commerce & Mobile Retail Services Summit in Chicago last year. It was possibly my biggest takeaway from three days spent at RAMP. His point was simple and elegant: automatic tweets and Facebook bots that try to attract, retain, and engage customers can only get a restaurant so far—if anywhere at all.

This isn’t a new concept for Ramon; this is a guy who back in 1998 began using his cell phone to call people if they were not at their door when the delivery arrived. By building that level of personal interest, customers soon began calling him directly for a pizza delivery. 

Social Media Gets Real

What’s needed is a return to a genuine one-on-one personal connection. Learning names. Coaxing people into a smile. Fostering real relationships. Ramon De Leon buys the idea—he likes to impress this “truth” on his employees, encouraging them to develop similar relationships. He calls it “the nonstop online conversation.”

How does Domino's start this conversation? Simple. Employees are encouraged to interact with their customers via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets. Rather than hard-selling the pizza, the interaction is about getting to know the customer—offering deals and discounts that are relevant and timely.

Even back in 2010, speaking to an audience at’s SuperGenius Conference in New York, De Leon explained that 90 percent of his Twitter posts had nothing to do with pizza per se, but instead were genuine reactions and comments on other people’s conversations.

It’s important that social media be more like a genuine conversation between good friends. There is a need for brutal honesty and unparalleled transparency. Extinguishing social media “fires” (negative reviews) with social media “water” (apologetic videos admitting mistakes) is as important as addressing a “real-world” problem like a mixed-up order.

Serving and Servicing One Customer at a Time

Before the pizza dough rises, other restaurants are re-engineering their social media efforts too, driving newfound loyalty and engagement in the process. Recently, I stumbled upon a story about the Blue Heron, a small “farm-to-table” restaurant nestled in the Connecticut River Valley in Sunderland, Mass., co-owned by Deborah Snow, 61, and her partner. Snow knew it would be hard to convince her mostly 40- and 50-something diners of the value of social media. Yet she has found Twitter to be an excellent way to keep in touch with regular patrons while gaining new converts. Rather than tweeting about deals, discounts, and the latest dishes, she tweets food recipes and even food poetry. She calls Twitter her “creative outlet.”

When it comes to restaurant customer engagement and loyalty, it’s important to remember that yes, promotional offers are important. Still, in an age when it’s so easy for customers to become reduced to faceless entities, personal connections—connections that evoke an earlier, less tech-centric time—are critical in breaking through the quick-service and casual-dining crowd. 

To stay ahead of “the wave of the now” is to become an omni-channel marketer who delivers omni-channel loyalty and customer experiences, no doubt. In light of Ramon De Leon's speech at RAMP, however, it's important we remember the real people at the other end of each channel. There must be an ongoing dialog, a conversation that advances a true relationship.

Genuine customer experience is back. I’ll take seconds of that—you better believe it.

Expert Takes, Feature