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A bitter pill: Jack in the Box, Chicken Salad Chick's, Mutt's Canine Cantina leaders discuss responding to reviews

| by S.A. Whitehead
A bitter pill: Jack in the Box, Chicken Salad Chick's, Mutt's Canine Cantina leaders discuss responding to reviews

Photo: iStock

Feeling a little — how should we say — "exposed," is perfectly understandable for QSR leaders and marketers these days. After all, everybody seems to have an opinion about restaurant brands, along with a burning desire to tell the world about it via online reviews. In fact, recent data indicates that QSRs are now the most reviewed businesses in existence today along with hotels and other hospitality industry entities, according to Yext Food Service Head of Industry Lee Zucker. 

As a result of that fact, these reviews, as well as decisions around how and when to respond to them, are subjects that weigh heavily on the minds of limited-service brand leaders today. As such, the subject of whether to respond or not to respond to online reviews made great fodder for an hour-long panel discussion at last month's Fast Casual Executive Summit in Austin, Texas.

Aside from Zucker — who moderated the panel — the fast-moving question-and-answer session featured:

  • Chicken Salad Chick Vice President of Marketing Tom Carr.
  • Jack in the Box Vice President of Marketing Communications Adrienne Ingoldt.
  • Mutts Canine Cantina founder and owner, Kyle Noonan. 

The time was particularly ripe for the discussion too, since as Zucker said, the industry is seeing a "crazy influx of reviews going on all over," including apps, websites, map utilities and others. In fact, he said between 2015 and 2018, the world experienced a 600% increase in such reviews and most of it went to QSRs.

"Our consumers expect to be spoken to in the places they live their lives natively."   

-Jack in the Box's Adrienne Ingoldt

The result is that the much-coveted lofty "star rating" is more coveted than ever, with four stars still being what Zucker called "the Holy Grail" in those ratings for restaurant brands since that designation pushes a brand up to the "best" category. Still, the average star rating for QSRs is just under that at 3.49, thanks to the fact that just 58% of reviews are actually positive. 

But Zucker also said brands do have some measure of power to change a trend toward less-than-glowing reviews and their related star equivalents. One of the best actions a brand can take is a personal and respectful response since Zucker said data shows that 75% of brands that do so, even if they have not before, see a 1 1/4 star rating increase. 

But this summit panel discussion was designed to get restaurateurs and marketers to really consider their brand's current actions and whether, as the session's title

Jack in the Box Vice President of Marketing Communications Adrienne Ingoldt. (Photo provided) 

stated, they should "respond or not." For the biggest brand on the panel, 2200-store Jack in the Box, the answer to that question was unequivocally to respond. In fact, the brand has even hired a third-party company to help them handle that massive task, Ingoldt said. 

"Our consumers expect to be spoken to in the places they live their lives natively," Ingoldt told the jam-packed session in downtown Austin, explaining that the brand brought on Yext to handle this activity five months earlier.

"They are managing and responding to all our reviews on our behalf. ... We have millions of reviews."

Specifically, Jack in the Box identified its 200 lowest performing locations and Yext focused on those with just a star or two. In just the first few months, that meant 52,000 reviews got a solid response. But perhaps more important for the brand is that now it can actually measure the effect such efforts are having, providing real numbers to indicate whether a course of action is working or not.  

Meanwhile, at Chicken Salad Chick, the brand put another provider, Reputation.com, to work about 18 months earlier and is now registering an enviable 4.9 to 4.96 in star ratings. But Carr said, it's still very important that managers of restaurants respond locally. 

"It's a very important part of what we do," Carr said. "All our managers respond to them (reviews) on a local level. ... They know their communities best so they respond to them. ... It's such a key part of the business, there's really no reason not to."

Mutts Canine Cantina owner Kyle Noonan though stepped into the discussion to remind the room-full of restaurateurs to keep in mind that just as their are "real people" behind the reviews, there are real people behind the restaurants being critiqued. As a result, he said reviewers' comments — when negative — can really erode a team's faith in itself in some ways. 

"I used to take some of these reviews personally and ... it's easy to get frustrated with. ... " he shared. "But we do really go in and engage with the customer and that, culturally, has affected the overall operation. ... If you're not doing it (responding to reviews) ... you're going to lose."

Using 'star power' to rally the troops

That led to the next set of questions involving first getting buy-in from franchisees on the actual overall business importance of this kind of customer response. At Mutts, Noonan said one simple little exercise they did with franchisees really drove home the absolute necessity of obtaining first-rate reviews from customers to achieving overall business success. 

"One of the things we started to do is identify the brands in the marketplace that we respected and then to look at them," Noonan explained. "So all the operators listed brands they respect — that do a great job. ... Then we looked them all up together. Sure enough they all had great (review) scores — great, great scores. ... That one exercise alone made everybody go, 'Oh, this does matter!' It was proven true."

"We try to foster an environment where you're not in 'trouble' if you get bad reviews.  And we do this now weekly instead of monthly because the scores increased when we instituted the rule that you have to respond within 24 hours. ... So the success rate with guests just increases exponentially."                                          

-- Mutts Canine Cantina owner Kyle Noonan

For Chicken Salad Chick and Jack in the Box, getting everyone on board was one thing, but then getting everyone up to speed on what their roles are in ensuring great customer reviews, was a little more complicated. At Chicken Salad Chick, Carr said the real trick has been to really involve all the players. 

Chicken Salad Chick Vice President of Marketing Tom Carr. (Photo provided) 

"The rollout was simple. ... We said here's platform and now you can go online and respond, so you're not getting those phone calls (from customers) ... You can just respond on your phone multiple times of day and find out what's going on. 

"The other piece that helped was ... getting people to understand what this means for the business in terms of local SEO ... and driving the website to be much higher in search results. Then after (operators begin to respond regularly to reviews), we show them what it's done for you ... because you're responding. ... We have had a lot of acceptance for it," he said of the overall response rate by in-store teams. 

Carr added that managers are expected to respond on the locations specific platform weekly, with those responses then being managed by the brand's marketing team.

"That allows us to say, (in cases where managers are not responding as expected), 'Please start responding again.' ... A lot of it is responding to negative (feedback), but responding to the positive is really more important."

Meanwhile, at Jack in the Box, consistency in the brand's messaging is given top priority, though that can be a challenge when a brand is so immersed in so many channels and platforms for some 2,200 stores. 

"So I think it's important for a brand our size to have consistent messaging across all our platforms," Ingoldt said. "It is a manageable community, but we're still not at the place where we want them to manage it all on a personal level."

At Mutts, with just a handful of locations in Texas, Noonan said the brand receives about 500 reviews weekly, which he said still makes personal operator responses unworkable. 

"I want my operators operating. With the high volume of reviews, the GM would be online all day responding to reviews with the volume we get," Noonan told the panel. "So now, once get to a certain point, the GM will get involved ... which is still manageable for more personalized interaction." 

But just as customer feedback is important for operators to respond to for all the reasons provided, it's also important for operators to get feedback around just how their efforts in this realm are affecting business. Zucker said that's one good thing about the actual quantity of reviews now offered by customers to any single brand — the higher volume allows for measurement that can really improve knowledge about ROI around actions taken on reviews. 

"On an ongoing level, with the reviews themselves, you have such a great opportunity to celebrate people in your restaurant. We even go and fish for all those great reviews about team members."

-Chicken Salad Chick's Tom Carr

All the brands concurred that this was an essential part of getting down to the real business value of all the efforts franchisees, owners and employees make in this realm. 

"For us to have a dashboard where we can drill down on this (data) ... gives us the chance strategically to see where the areas of focus should be," Ingoldt explained. "Like we can tabulate data based on particular product specs ... and it's important for us to get that level of detail. ... It's really the face of your brand, so this is a really important place to have a direct relationship with consumers."

Mutts Canine Cantina founder and owner, Kyle Noonan. (Photo provided) 

Carr said that positive aspect — the ability to really see the results of a team's efforts in numbers — is also key at Chicken Salad Chick. 

"On an ongoing level, with the reviews themselves, you have such a great opportunity to celebrate people in your restaurant. We even go and fish for all those great reviews about team members," he said, adding that the brand then backs up that detective work with awards and other incentives for employees who shine in reviews, turning feedback into a form of employee retention. 

At Mutts, the brand obtains a dashboard now on a weekly basis which it uses to review with operators in a non-threatening way around the good, the bad and the ugly that customers have offered.  

"It's important to have a ritual every week of just talking about it," Noonan said. "We try to foster an environment where you're not in 'trouble' if you get bad reviews.  And we do this now weekly instead of monthly because the scores increased when we instituted the rule that you have to respond within 24 hours. ... So the success rate with guests just increases exponentially ... so we put lot of emphasis on urgency.

"But it's really important to remember that's a real person ... and that your team needs to be just as engaged with pictures as with a bad Yelp review ... because on all these platforms, we have to be communicating and engaging with guests." 

In the final analysis then, these three very different and differently sized limited-service brands and their leaders, acknowledged that responding to reviews is an enormous task, wrought with challenges. That said though, these brand leaders agreed that brands that turn a blind eye to this part of their businesses face a very real risk of losing out to competitors whose eyes are fixed on this feedback and learning the value of the right response. 


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Fast Casual Executive Summit, Food & Beverage, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Operations Management, Staffing & Training, Trends / Statistics



S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.




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