When at the end of an evening dining out with friends, a waiter brings a comment card, the tendency is for people to pass it down the table to me, not so much because I’m an expert—that’s an excuse; it’s because no one can be bothered to fill it out, and I don’t blame them. Comment cards can be annoying, especially when they are thrust upon you.
On the other hand they can be useful to management which, if the system works, means better food and service for us, and more business for them. This raises some important questions: How do restaurants, bars and cafes gather information? What do they do with it? And, just as importantly, what are the responsibilities of their customers?
Sometimes people feel obliged to fill out those cards and don’t take them very seriously, like university students filling out course evaluation forms; but some customers are thoughtful, and good management teams take them seriously. There are those, of course, including, as often as not, chefs, who believe that they are serving the best food in the world and that those who critique a dish have no idea what they are talking about and are dismissed out-of-hand; but more often than not comment cards are read carefully and you help the business and the dining community when you provide an honest, balanced appraisal.
Social media can work this way too. A new phenomenon has emerged in Cairo over the past year and a half which is a fairly active discussion of restaurants, bars and cafes on Twitter. Food Review Egypt (@Food-eg), for example, a Twitter account that was set up in March of last year, has over 1,400 followers, and re-tweets customer comments daily; and because many businesses also have Twitter accounts, and because this is a public forum, public relations teams are listening to the conversations.
On many occasions I have tweeted some issue I had at a particular venue and within hours either the manager or the owner has called me or contacted me to ask me in-depth questions about my experience and sometimes they have even asked me to meet with them to discuss the menu or the staff or anything else that comes up.
This is professional and much-appreciated by customers. I’m sure others have had the same experience. Perhaps someday we will have in the Middle East something like Yelp, which is an American on-line customer review service for all sorts of goods and services with over 100 million followers. Studies by US-based economists have shown that customer ratings are fairly reliable and that a shift for a restaurant from, say, 3.5 to 4 stars, based on customer reviews, can increase bookings by nearly 20%.
The flip side of the coin is that some business owners are defensive. I have been blocked from some restaurants’ Twitter accounts after negative comments. Others sometimes try to manipulate social media to their own advantage. You can see this for example on local sites like Totally Egypt where you might see a sudden spike in positive comments on a given restaurant that shoots them to the number one spot in the rankings. Then again, it can equally be used as a forum for discussion, with owners replying to the comments and working conscientiously to meet their customers’ needs. Facebook, too, can work in much the same way. It all depends on whether management is genuinely interested in customer feedback. This applies to the clientele too. Frankly, some people are cranky and critical and they do not know what they are talking about.
The best way for restaurants to get feedback is for managers and owners to ask the customers themselves. This too can be tricky. In some cases, having a waiter ask me if I like the food after every course is downright annoying, and in others, especially in a place that I already think is hopeless, I know perfectly well that when the manager inquires about our experience, he is really only interested in covering his own mistakes and that deep down he could not care less what I think. For these I always smile and say everything was great. But customers need to know that many managers and business owners are quite sincere about this. It is up to us to figure out the difference between the two and to think carefully about the comments we make because they really are taken seriously.
It is kind of like dating. It takes a while to get to know a restaurant and its staff. At the same time they are assessing you. When you come to trust a business and when it is clear that management truly cares, then it is a match made in heaven.