Customer feedback is not common in the restaurant business.
Experienced restaurateurs have observed that most people are reluctant to complain and that they would rather not cause a scene.
The ubiquitous comment card doesn't do the trick, either - for most, it's too much of a hassle.
So Sean Guffey was skeptical when a company offered to provide him with newly engineered electronic comment cards for his Stuart, Fla., restaurant earlier this year.
The JTECH Corporation produced the device to let customers vent without making it personal.
The wait staff usually presents the electronic card with the check. Each diner is asked to use a numeric scale to rank the overall quality of food, service, specific food items, and even the restaurant's decor.
Their answers are transmitted wirelessly to an in-house computer. If a customer ranks anything less than a 6, Mr. Guffey can be immediately paged, giving him the chance to talk with the most-miffed customers.
To Guffey's surprise, customers at his Bare Bones Grill haven't held back. He receives about 150 surveys daily from customers.
"It's a phenomenal management-tool system. I've gotten unbiased opinion from over 6,000 customers" in a little more than two months, Guffey says. "And the system creates graphs that show ratings and where my strengths and weaknesses are."
Guffey has taken the comments seriously. He switched to a combination of romaine lettuce and field greens in the house salad after a volume of complaints about the iceberg mix. He's also made personnel changes.
"I was getting poor hostess ratings at high periods," he says. "We ended up putting a more experienced person up front at busier times."
The card's overall benefit to this and other restaurants is efficiency - which means lower costs, says Dina DiPerna, JTECH's vice president of marketing. "Restaurants find they don't have to do focus groups anymore, because they can get it straight from their customers."
While the device is only used in a handful of restaurants, the direct polling seems to be working.
"We've gotten huge results from the changes," Guffey says. "Customer ratings have gone up one to two points in each area I've changed." The surveys are also good public-relations tools, he maintains, because they make customers feel appreciated.
The discreet technology could service some unlikely people, Ms. DiPerna suggests. She points to department stores, car dealerships, and even churches as possible beneficiaries.
"If I'm the pastor, I want a response to the service; I want to know the age group of people in the pews so I can target them with billboard and radio ads," she says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society