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Talking Back

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Using your customers’ likes and dislikes to tailor product and service offerings to best meet their needs is an important key to continued success. The question is: What’s the best way to capture this information?

That was the challenge facing Denver-based Smashburger, a fast-casual chain with 160 locations in 25 states and Canada. Its segment is growing nicely; sales at the top 150 fast-casual restaurant chains totaled about $21.5 billion in 2011, up 8.4 percent from a year earlier, according to QSR magazine. At the same time, it includes formidable competitors like Panera Bread and Chipotle.

“We were looking for a partner to help us better understand the strengths and weaknesses at our stores, with the goal of improving overall consistency and making the guest experience better,” says Jeremy Morgan, senior vice president of marketing and consumer insights with Smashburger.

Morgan and his colleagues found that partner in Empathica, a provider of customer surveys that can be completed online and via mobile devices. Each year, some 30 million people around the world complete an Empathica survey. Smashburger began rolling out the survey application to its locations in late 2010.

Creating a dialogue
Empathica helps clients improve the quality of their operations by easily and quickly capturing feedback from consumers, says chief customer officer Gary Edwards. “We create a dialogue with customers so that we obtain information that can be acted on.”

The company works primarily with bricks-and-mortar operations, although many of its clients also sell through other channels. While Empathica is available to businesses of any size, most of the company’s clients have at least 30 to 50 units, with some operating tens of thousands of locations around the globe, Edwards says.

Smashburger works with two Empathica solutions: Empathica Local helps store managers determine where to focus their efforts on a daily basis; GoRecommend is a social media advocacy solution.

Information gathered from customers can be used in two general ways, Edwards says: It can help drive strategic decisions, such as those involving menu changes or the layout of a location, and it can help drive a customer-first culture. As Edwards notes, keeping an organization’s mission front and center typically becomes more difficult as it grows to hundreds or even thousands of locations. “Our mission is to help companies and customers love where they work, eat and shop,” he says.

Finding the optimal balance between gathering all the information that a retailer would like and keeping surveys short enough that customers actually complete them can get tricky. Ideally, online surveys should take no more than four or five minutes to finish, while those designed for mobile phones should require even less time -- perhaps three to four minutes, Edwards says.

To meet these targets, the ways in which questions are phrased becomes critical: Rather than ask customers if they were greeted when they entered a store or restaurant, a survey might ask “Did you feel welcome when you walked into the store?”

This puts the emphasis on the overall customer experience, rather than focusing on just one element, which can sometimes lead to a “check-the-box” mentality.

Improving experiences
Morgan and his team at Smashburger worked collaboratively with Empathica to develop the guest survey. Doing so allowed the company to leverage Empathica’s experience, while also incorporating questions that addressed unique aspects of the Smashburger brand.

Once the survey outline was complete, Empathica took care of the technical aspects of developing the website, along with push reporting and online tools. Disseminating this to Smashburger’s stores was as simple as programming the POS system to invite guests to visit the survey website, Morgan says. Smashburger’s management requires all franchise groups to use the tools to collect guest feedback and measure operational effectiveness; franchisees have been “very receptive” to the Empathica solution, Morgan says.

Customers appear to be receptive, as well. Morgan says the typical store receives around 30 responses each week, providing “a lot of data and context to help store managers train and improve performance.”

Most Empathica clients experience a 3 to 5 percent lift in customer satisfaction within a year of rolling out the solution, Edwards says. Smashburger beat the average, recording a 5.5 percent increase in customer satisfaction scores within its test group, vs. 1 percent at control locations.

Morgan and his colleagues review survey results on a weekly basis, analyzing each survey question with an eye toward continually improving customer ratings of their overall experience and their likelihood to recommend the restaurant to others. “Over the course of the partnership, we have been able to improve the consistency of the experience across stores, and also move up the overall scores by several percentage points,” he says.

When customers indicate that they’ve had a positive experience, the Empathica software asks whether they’d like to recommend the company via social media. Typically, about 10 to 20 percent do so, Edwards says, which can lead to thousands of new fans or friends online at relatively little cost to the company.

Smashburger’s program helped generate more than 12,000 recommendations on social media sites, resulting in some two million impressions. As of late July, more than 85,000 people “like” Smashburger on Facebook. Guests who complete the survey are also asked to join the company’s e-mail club, SmashClub -- a very effective way to drive membership, Morgan says.

Linking satisfaction to sales
Perhaps the only shortcoming with Empathica is the difficulty of truly tying overall guest satisfaction scores to a company’s financial performance. “Intuitively, there should be a linkage, and certainly we believe that improving the guest experience and being responsive to customer feedback ultimately leads to better restaurants and higher sales,” Morgan says. “But to date, we have been unable to draw a direct connection between store revenues and guest satisfaction, as measured by Empathica.”

Even so, Smashburger appears to be on a roll. Same-store sales increased 3 percent in 2011, and the company announced in January that the number of units grew by 55 percent. Management plans to open between 50 and 70 new locations this year.

Smashburger is working on several new initiatives with Empathica. One is what Morgan refers to as “prescriptive reporting,” which should help management at each location focus on the most important actions they can take to improve the customer experience. For some stores, this might mean a greater focus on cleanliness; for others, it might be more emphasis on service times. “Based on feedback we’re getting from guests, we’re able to automatically figure out the biggest lever for each location and attack it head on,” Morgan says.