Restaurant franchisees don’t often have the chance to moonlight as tech entrepreneurs, but for John Carlew, a Houston-based operator of three Bullritos fast-casual restaurants, his second job as co-founder of mobile survey platform Live Feedback Now has him working overtime to improve his restaurants’ operations.
Dissatisfied with the comment cards, mystery shopper services and online-feedback functions he had used during his 33 years franchising Chick-fil-A, Quiznos Sub and Cici’s Pizza units, Carlew was motivated to develop his own method to solicit customer feedback in a way that was easier and more immediate. He worked with mobile technology executives to develop a system that allows customers use simple text-message functionality on their mobile phones to answer a short survey specific to the restaurant in which they're dining.
Any responses that indicate a problem with a meal or service immediately alert the manager on duty or the owner, who is able to instantly call the cell phone that gave the survey answers. That way, the restaurant can straighten out issues before the customer leaves angry, either to never return again or to blast the establishment on Facebook or Yelp.
“It’s the definition of insanity to take $1.5 million to build a location of McDonald’s or whatever, and then turn it over to a guy making $40,000 a year,” Carlew said. “You should turn your restaurant over to the people eating there on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.”
More than 80 percent of responses thus far have been positive, according to Carlew, and the negative feedback mostly has been constructive criticism or mixed comments such as, “This part of the order was wrong, but thank you for helping me correct it quickly.”
La Porte, Texas-based Bullritos has 18 locations in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia. Carlew, who opened his first Bullritos location in 2009 and is in the process of building several more, spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about how more instant customer feedback has helped him optimize operations at his business.
What drove you to develop a new customer survey platform in what little free time you get as a franchise operator?
I’ve opened more than 100 restaurants in my career, and I’ve always been frustrated to know that, as you as you become a multiunit owner, you lose touch with your guests. So this is meant to duplicate me in all my stores. I have a great management staff, and I explained to them that this [technology] wouldn't be me standing over them but the guest standing over them. It turns the customer into the person driving the vehicle, which is how it should be at all times.
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As a multiunit owner or a franchisor, you can take the core guest for granted after a little while. They like your product and you’ve gained their loyalty, but every now and then you mess up, even with them. I had one lady who visits me four times a week, and we messed up her order once. She used this system to say that this one thing was wrong and that everything was just average this time. I had my operations manager call her, and she was blown away. She appreciated that there was a process in place where she could voice her opinion and see something corrected immediately.
From my standpoint, it’s just about making sure I give my guests every single opportunity to get exactly what they want.
Were you surprised that much of the feedback is positive? Usually, in social-media interactions and Yelp reviews, posts tend to skew negative because bad service usually spurs more action than satisfactory service.
It’s instantaneous and via text — and everybody texts. That’s probably why people are giving so much good feedback. With other methods, for somebody to take all that time to go home, log on to their computer and pull up your website, or to use a QR code on their phone, you’re going to get somebody who’s really had a poor experience.
It’s a beautiful thing to take the negative off of social media. Now I can funnel the negative feedback directly to the people who really matter and can do something about it, be it the owner or the regional manager. Once the customer is heard and her needs are addressed, there’s no reason for her to go to the Yelps of the world, and this is private. The guests then become loyal because you take care of them.
What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned from this kind of feedback, and what sort of changes have you made in your restaurants?
Guests aren’t looking for things to be wrong, but they expect a certain amount of courtesy, professionalism and respect in your restaurant. This setup lets me know when that doesn’t happen, and it’s showing us that a lot of the hard work we put into training is paying off. It helps tremendously on the employee side, because when I can capture some good, positive data for them and show them, it’s smiles across the board with them. When you show them that the actions they take with their work habits get noticed by the customer it reinforces training for beyond anything I could ever do.
We’ve changed so many little things recently. I learned we weren’t getting our windows clean enough. Another big one was — I’m a fanatic about the atmosphere in a restaurant, and the most negative comments I’ve received, equal to something being inaccurate, were complaints about our music.
I had given the autonomy to my managers to play whatever music they liked and at whatever volume level they liked. It turned out to be a big deal and something that I never would have thought guests would notice. So we started playing ’80s music in every store, because it’s fun but not too loud or explicit. I got so many positive comments on our atmosphere just because we changed the music.