In the early 1990s JTECH Inc, then based in Pompano Beach, Florida, created two new pieces of technology for the restaurant industry as it struggled to meet rising demand.
The first was a vibrating pager which summoned the waiting staff back into the kitchen when their customers' food was ready, thereby speeding up service. The second, similar in size and shape, was handed by the receptionist to customers who had walked into a very busy restaurant without a reservation. This allowed them to have a drink at the bar, to be called back as soon as their table was ready and, most importantly, ensured that they would not take their custom elsewhere.
The success of these two products saw JTECH Inc prosper and in late 2000 Call-Systems Technology took over the UK JTECH operations in a management buy-out.
Their latest invention, rather long windedly called an electronic customer satisfaction survey system, may prove to be as timely as their first two but for very different reasons. In the current more difficult trading circumstances restaurateurs are facing they need to know immediately how the kitchen and waiting staff are performing so that they can retain loyal customers and recognise what has to be done to improve service to win over new ones.
There has never been an easy or socially acceptable method for restaurateurs to discover whether their customers have enjoyed their meal. An inquiring maître d' is the tried and tested solution but most customers respond blandly and unscientifically, preferring, understandably, to return to the point of the meal, whether business, social or romantic, as soon as possible. Customer survey cards, which can work successfully in hotels or retail, are rarely completed before the details of the meal have been forgotten even if there is an inducement to do so. The average response rate is 10 per cent, the most successful no higher than 25 per cent and often the information is too out of date to be of any use. And although mystery diner programmes, where the restaurant asks professional surveyors to comment on their experiences, have been widely used these can be expensive and overly specific.
The simplicity, flexibility and speed of C-ST's Electronic Comment Card (ECC), introduced last week at the annual Restaurant Show in Olympia, overcomes all of these obstacles. By being discreet and fun to complete it achieves a very high customer response - as high as 85 per cent in restaurants in the US and at trial sites at De Vere hotels in the Midlands. And by delivering its findings to the restaurateur at the end of each day as the information is downloaded into a restaurant's PC, it means that the restaurateur can respond immediately to any specific customer complaint or suggestion for improvement.
And, above all, the ECC looks smart and unthreatening. It comes in a black leather folder only slightly thicker than those many restaurateurs already use to present their bills. And in fact when the customer opens the folder the bill has been inserted on the left-hand side. The right-hand side contains the ECC complete with electronic touchpad and LCD display.
Once the customer has checked the bill and is in the process of paying the waiter then asks whether he or she would mind completing the survey which takes no more than a couple of minutes, crucially no longer than the processing of a normal credit card transaction. The ECC is switched on and the waiter departs to leave his fate and that of the kitchen in the hands of the table he has just served.
The customer is led through a series of 10 pre-programmed questions about the meal ranging from the quality of the cooking to the speed and quality of the service, asking for either yes or no responses or qualitative responses on a scale of 1-10. Most importantly, the customer is left to complete the survey in privacy, the whole table can be involved in deciding the final results and the waiting and kitchen staff are not only unaware of the verdict on their performance but also unable to intervene by, for example, binning any critical comment cards before they reach the manager. As well as the fun and novelty elements, the ECC has been sturdily designed with large, chunky keys to accommodate even the most clumsy or technophobic.
Once the customer has completed the survey and closed the wallet the ECC is taken to a small docking station where it is kept until required for the next table. Each table's information is stored and at the end of the shift downloaded so that it can be tabulated, analysed and most importantly used for improvement before the restaurant reopens for business.
Two other attributes point to the ECC's future acceptance and success. The first is that it can be programmed to meet restaurants' specific objectives such as upselling of certain food and drink items, and the waiting staff can be incentivised to ensure the highest completed returns of the survey during any particular shift.
Most importantly for the customer, the days of an uninterested maître d' inquiring insincerely whether you have enjoyed your meal are finally over.
ECCs are available on rental packages from Call-Systems Technology, tel 0800 3895642, email firstname.lastname@example.org