Not so long ago, restaurants were run mostly by intuition and experience. You’d put together a menu you thought would work. You’d serve the customers and hope they liked it. You’d estimate how many waiters and dishwashers you needed and hope you'd scheduled enough—but not too many.
Usually, any changes you made to improve your business were based on either crises that erupted or hunches—intuitions—that you had. Really, you were just guessing based on your experiences and hoping for the best.
Maybe you’d collect a few guest comment cards along the way. Maybe you’d make a few notes on customer waits or services times going up or down, but you lacked actionable data to help guide your decisions. You were basically crawling in the dark.
Today, all that has changed with the arrival of real-time analytics tools that empower restaurant owners and managers with facts to solve their problems. It’s intuition on steroids.
How Real-Time Analytics Can Make Restaurants Smarter
I’ll give you a couple of examples. Take customer feedback and the old methods of collecting it. There were comment cards, which people were most likely to ignore or throw away. In reality, only outliers—the most effusively happy and the angriest customers—would bother. Then, there were telephone surveys. Let’s face it, who has the time to provide a telemarketing company with feedback? Or you could ask customers to fill out an online survey that gets you on yet another email list. Who’s going to do that?
With any of those methods, your response rate could be as low as 5 percent. And the responses weren’t received on a basis that even came close to being timely. On top of that, the sample size was so low as to be meaningless. What can you do with that information? Fall back on your hunches, and hope for the best.
Now consider a modern method: handing customers a digital survey tool with a customizable set of questions as they finish their meal. And imagine 80 percent of them or more respond (that’s our experience)—because it’s presented on-the-spot, on a tablet device they enjoy using.
The wealth of data that can result is amazing. Restaurant managers can determine in real time—and with pinpoint precision—whether service and food quality is up to customers’ expectations, what menu items they liked or hated, and even whether or not they are interested in receiving special offers.
Another benefit of instant feedback is that you can immediately intervene and respond to customer complaints so they don’t leave with a poor impression of your operation. Today’s technology will immediately alert a manager of negative comments.
Beyond that, cumulative data from digital survey tools can help you identify all sorts of trends you might not otherwise spot. Which menu items are surging or trailing off in popularity? Which servers seem to get the most negative marks? Who tends to be working in the kitchen when there are food complaints? How do various locations perform against one another?
Guest Management Tools Do a Lot More Than Manage Guests
Another important set of analytics can be gleaned through tools that restaurants use to manage wait times. Today’s guest management tools and software do a lot more than manage the wait in an orderly fashion and free customers from waiting around the congested host stand.
They also help restaurants begin to compile a rich database that arms managers with actionable intelligence on critical questions, such as:
What is the optimal time to start offering early-bird specials or happy hour to fill more tables? How effective are the specials you’re offering?
What is the optimal configuration of the restaurant, as reflected in wait times? Are too many two-tops sitting empty while parties of four wait for a table? Do you need more large-party configurations?
How much is wait time reduced, and how many more tables can be turned, by adding additional waiters or kitchen staff during busy times? How do you maximize that ratio?
What special requests do guests have—i.e., a seat by the window or a private corner—that you can’t accommodate?
Who is your guest? Is it their first visit? Are they celebrating a special occasion? How did they hear about you?
With today’s real-time analytics, the possibilities are bounded only by your imagination. Virtually any question—any intuition—you have about making your restaurant more profitable, from operational efficiencies to customers' real thoughts on your product, can be answered by consulting the right set of data.
Next time you hear the phrase Big Data—and you certainly hear it a lot these days—that’s what people mean. Analytics takes the guesswork out of intuition. If you aren’t using it, then chances are your competition will soon be using it against you.
The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.