Service isn’t a traffic driver, it’s an expectation

Reading through some recent research conducted for brands has produced a resounding ‘Meh’ on the topic of service. The research, which is confidential, was deployed to identify clear drivers for an expanding brand. Though respondents rated the service above average and added many positive notes in the open ends, it is obvious that they don’t come to this brand for the service. And that they had a certain expectation from the category.

In research conducted by F&RM, service quality ranked second to ‘past experience’ for selecting a restaurant. Curiously, ‘friendly wait staff’ was sixth. We determined at that time that accuracy and efficiency are more important than friendliness. We also determined that the contrary to understanding, friendly does not equal quality.

There is so much focus on service in training. And it is absolutely important. Training staff in the finer points of service and making sure guests have a great experience is critical. Especially since past experience is the number one criteria for selecting their next restaurant.

But where does service actually fit in the experience? This is the tricky part for training in service. And also for guests in assessing service. If the server is busy and forgets to bring the check, that might be bad service. Where is the line? If the kitchen sends an incorrect order, the guest interprets that as bad service too.

Even when the service is flawless, it still doesn’t drive traffic. Guests expect a level of service. That expected level shifts with the restaurant and with the category. But they still walk into each meal with some ideas of how they will be treated. They expect a clean table (that doesn’t wobble). They expect the person they communicate with to know the menu and understand what they are ordering. They have an expectation of the time the order will take to prepare and get to their table. A guest’s positive experience in one in which everything goes off without a hitch.

An extremely positive experience, ie. memorable, is one in which the restaurant over-delivers on that expectation.

Even for the best operators it is a challenge to meet the ever rising consumer standard. People are spoiled for experiences, and brands invest ever more in improving them. But if brands hope to consistently create memorable experiences, this is what they’re up against. Expectation.

So brands are caught in a trap. Because consumers believe that anything less than the expectation they have should be met. Just to get them in the door. And a million things out of the control of an operator can ruin that expectation. Anything short, and they’re not back. Overachieve, and set the bar higher for future visits.

The key for brands is in how they manage those cases in which something goes awry. Most operations training focuses on creating the positive, managing to the average. For brands with hopes of keeping up in the experience economy that we’re now living in, the focus should shift to managing for negative. As communications teams have a plan in place for crises, so operators should have a plan for the millions of little ways a visit can go wrong.

Since most of those incidents are not unique, there’s no reason that they can’t be accounted for in training. Equip servers and counter staff with the tools to react – or even plan for – errors in operation. As we all know, most guests are annoyed with the problem, but grow more frustrated with poor handling of the initial mistake. Training for this can help meet the expectation.

Even the table is part of your brand.

Like you, I’m exposed to plenty of ads and messaging from suppliers and vendors around the restaurant industry. This week, I saw an email from the manufacturer of a table base system. It said something like ‘a wobbly table hurts your brand.’ At first I shrugged it off. But I came back to the email a few times. I found something about the idea surprisingly true.

I’ve written before about the ways proactive brands can improve experience for guests over a series of visits. Experience. That word keeps popping up. It’s inconsistently understood. In the restaurant industry, we should consider replacing the word ‘experience’ with its predecessor: ‘brand.’

Honestly, which part of the experience is excluded from your brand? The ‘experience’ is meant to be the physical and emotional manifestation of the brand. Of course a wobbly table reflects on the experience. It’s indicative of the care put into your guest’s visit. In a sit down environment, a wobbly table sets the tone.

When we think about brand, we think about emotion. Some things are taken for granted (or – table stakes, sorry.) The table is an obvious example. A wobbly table is a distraction, “If this table is off kilter, what else did they miss?” What else is taken for granted by guests? Food. Service. Cleanliness. Beverage. If it is a repeat visit, maybe music or atmosphere. Essentially everything.

Which part do you think doesn’t reflect back on the brand? More important question. Which part do you think your best customer is willing to let go? As an operator, we understand all the millions of things that can go wrong with any particular visit. On top of labor, service issues, food prep, and the basics of having a running restaurant – all within the guidelines of a master brand – we have to make sure the tables don’t wobble?


But only if you want the optimal experience for your guest. More importantly, how does a server or staff member react when the guest complains about the table? This is where the small problem may become magnified. Because you cannot guarantee that no table will ever wobble across your entire system, training staff to handle that complaint with a smile is all the more critical.

We’ve seen that customers are almost expecting some small mishap with their meal or experience. Most (no, not all) people are polite when bringing that first complaint. The brand isn’t tainted for them when the table wobbles. It becomes tainted when the wobbly table becomes a story about how the brand let them down, when things weren’t improved.

For years, people have been reading that “the customer has control.” That is obviously overblown. It’s a misnomer because the customer does have some control of the choice they make. But the brand has control over the details and managing experiences. The customer didn’t undercook the chicken or make the table wobble. The customer takes control when those things aren’t remedied to their satisfaction by not coming back. Or worse, writing a review.

Remember above – we replaced the word ‘experience’ with the word ‘brand.’ Now replace the word ‘table’ with the word ‘brand.’ Each of these components are an important part of your brand. The more you believe the guest experience is a differentiator for you, the more you need to take back control of those details. Because the table is the brand. Wobbly or not is up to you.

Credit to Flattech for inspiring this article. They were in no way compensated and did not participate in the content.

Relevance and sinking restaurant brands

Nation’s Restaurant News published this article about 5 brands facing trouble in 2017. It is a list of brands you could probably name if you’re familiar with the industry. In the article, Jonathan Maze cites traffic and cashflow as common problems among the group.

There is another common element among the brands listed and others that could have just have easily been added. Relevance. The way the brand fits into consumer’s lives. How they see the brand. The ways the use the brand. And it manifests in several ways.

Specific uses

Buffalo Wild Wings has done a fantastic job educating consumers that the brand is used for sports. Wings. Beer. Sports. Come here, watch sports. In effect, they spent millions to own a broad occasion. Much more common than a birthday, but still specific. Their ads and in store materials tell consumers ‘If it’s sports, be here.’

True, sports have become ubiquitous. But big sporting events are limited. But as ratings for the NFL have dipped, so have sales numbers at BDubs. And aligning wings with the event has also trained consumers that they only go there when they want wings, and that wings are all they are good for.

The brand has created a relevance problem by being so specific. They are relevant to a simple item, and an occasion the brand doesn’t own or control.

Brand fit

Ruby Tuesday has a wholly different challenge. It’s a brand that stands for nothing, despite many fits and starts over the past few years. RT latched onto updated Americana at a time when Americans lost site of Americana is. Though a national footprint, the brand never reached the national status of Casual Dining contemporaries TGIFridays or Applebee’s.

When grasping at nostalgia, which is becoming more and more common, there has to be a memory to draw from. Chili’s is attempting to create a historic sense in its latest campaign featuring visuals and music from the 70’s, the time of its launch.

Part of Ruby Tuesday’s challenge is bigger than its brand. People don’t know how they feel about casual dining. The entire category is at risk in 2017. Fast Casual has capture many occasions with their combination of similar quality, more novel flavors, faster experience and lower cost. If there is a sit down meal to be had, suddenly Casual Dining brands like Ruby Tuesday are competing with local brands or independents with higher quality product and often competitive costs.

The brand has to tell consumers how it fits into their lives. Buffalo Wild Wings, despite its current challenge, has done a great job of being clear about the intended time for a visit. When is the best time to visit a Ruby Tuesday? That’s not quite as clear.

Don’t muddy the experience

Applebee’s also made the list after a huge disappointment. Facing the threat to Casual Dining, the brand correctly concluded that change was needed. They opted to combat Fast Casual by upgrading their food with hand cut steaks and installing grills. They were able to convince franchisees and stakeholders to make this leap.

It sounds like the beginning of a successful case study. But as you know, it’s not. Relevance is the reason why. Applebee’s, despite challenges in sales and traffic was still more often used than most of it’s Casual Dining contemporaries. People know how to use the brand, and they offered several successful day parts.

This is why steaks and gas failed to draw consumers. That’s not the experience they know the brand for. That’s not why they go there. Applebee’s is not a steak destination. Steak brands are known for steak first. Outback, Lone Star, Long Horn, Morton’s. A commitment to moving the perception of the brand to a legitimate place for steak is much more than installing grills.

Steak brands feature steak. Applebee’s introduced it more like an LTO. Most consumers are
drawn to an LTO at a price they’re willing to risk. The perceived cost of a steak probably scared off those that were interested.