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Failing to Listen - And How To Fix It

By Michael Aarons

Even in a strong economy, the restaurant business is one of the most difficult to succeed at. No one will dispute that. Enter the Internet and it makes it even harder if you're not aware of what's out there. Who's saying what about your place, your food, and your service are all critical to keeping your dining room full and your customers happy. So it's important to monitor your presence on the web even if you don't have a website. There are many, many sites such as Yelp! and Metromix, (not to mention Facebook) that offer forums for people to post reviews about virtually any restaurant you could think of.

If you haven't already, don't be surprised when you Google your restaurant. Typically, there will be both good and bad reviews, but the worst thing you can do is to get defensive. After you've had a moment to digest what your customers are saying about your establishment, you might find that there are indeed some good points to be taken away from what may seem like excessively harsh criticism. If the reviews are all glowing, then of course you needn't worry your online image is just fine. Though more often than not, your web presence could probably use some tweaking.

We've all been there before. Your friend recommends a place, so you check it out online before you go. The reviews are mostly positive and the menu looks good, so you decide to go ahead and make a reservation. It's a hip, upscale place, but not over the top. Unfortunately, your expectations go unfulfilled and you find the place just kind of average. The server with an attitude didn't help things either. Of course, being the good sport that you are and not wanting to wreck the evening for the rest of your party, you simply nod and smile when the server asks how everything was. But then, when you get back to the coziness of your home and your laptop, you prepare to exact your revenge with a feisty review on Yelp!

What went wrong? Were your expectations too high? Did you catch them on an off night? Were the reviews all written by their friends? Could be any of the above, it's hard to say. But one thing's for sure, you're not going back again. So why should the restaurateur care? He's already lost you as a customer and knows you're probably not coming back anyway. And unfortunately, too many owners take this type of attitude because they either don't know how to fix the problem, or they just don't care. But they should care, unless they want the same outcome from the next four-top that gets seated.

The smart operator sees beyond the negatives and uses the information to address the issues that are truly hurting his business. In a way, it's almost like free market research if you think about it. People are actually telling you what's good and bad about your food or staff, and you, as the business owner don't have to spend a red cent for it. No expensive focus groups or telephone surveys by high-priced consulting firms, just the real-deal. Straight up feedback from the people who eat what you serve. Hey, nobody likes to get slammed, but that's the reality of it. If yours is a family run business and there are strong emotional ties to traditional recipes and a certain way of doing things, it may be even more difficult to accept constructive criticism found online. You can easily dismiss it as the ravings of one disgruntled customer who was unable to please no matter what you did, and sometimes, this is the case. But often, real improvements can be made, and without spending a lot of money.

For example, let's say a particular bartender keeps getting mentioned online for his inattentiveness and lack of demeanor. Many people won't bother to approach the manager and complain because they don't want a confrontation to spoil their night out, especially if they'll be ordering more drinks later. Most likely, they'll just drown their sorrows and move on to the dining room. Since the manager may be unaware of this problem, he would do well to take a few minutes each week to search Yelp! and the other sites to see how his place is being perceived. In the case of the aforementioned surly bartender, it should be a red flag and indicate to management that some type of action needs to be taken. At the very least, he should check with his servers to find out if there's been any grumbling by the customers about said bartender. If the reviews are substantiated by his staff, then he can give him a warning or fire him. Otherwise, the result will be less time spent at the bar prior to dinner, and ultimately, a smaller profit margin when the night's receipts are tallied.

Another easily illustrated example goes something like this. Let's say your restaurant has a signature dish that has been wowing them for years but just isn't moving that well lately. With the six new appetizers you added, you probably didn't even notice. But one afternoon you decide to check yourself out and find out why. No rocket science here. The reviews are in, and it's not pretty.

"Used to come here for their signature Prime Rib, but the last couple times it was dry and fatty, and I won't be coming back again. It's a shame, because theirs really was the best."

So, whether it's an inferior cut of beef or a substandard server that's hurting your cause, searching online can provide you with some valuable feedback on how to keep the customers you already have, without needlessly losing them to problems you may not be aware of.

Final note keep in mind that I am not suggesting that you run out and make sweeping changes to your staff and menu just because of one or two lousy reviews. On the other hand, you should remain open to accepting honest and well intentioned input, even if it means putting your ego on the back burner once in a while.

Michael Aarons is a Chicago native and freelance copywriter with a strong background in the foodservice advertising industry. Micheal's blog, "The Mouthful" can be found online at

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