"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” So said US business magnate Warren Buffet. This is more true than ever in today’s digital world where almost everything in the public eye is under scrutiny and, thanks to the growth in popularity of review sites such as TripAdvisor, restaurants have more than their fair share of it.
As with many industries, the growth of the digital world has offered opportunities as well as threats. For restaurants, these opportunities are being able to speak to millions of potential customers via social channels and share positive customer reviews, while the challenges include having to keep on top of less than positive reviews in the public eye and trying to retain ownership of information about their businesses. And all with the threat of those dangerous five minutes hanging over the business.
So how can restaurants take advantage of the opportunities while avoiding the threats? How important is a business’ online reputation and how can businesses manage it successfully? These are the questions we put to a group of restaurateurs, and here’s what they had to say.
The importance of the digital world
Emma Dickinson (sales and social strategy manager, Youngs): It’s essential for us. We’ve got a whole team that works on the online aspect of the business. We used to rely on word of mouth where one person would maybe tell 10 people maximum about a positive experience but now, with the power of online channels, social media and reviews sites, it can be 10 million people.
Rosie Mira (head of marketing, Hawksmoor Group): We don’t think about digital and offline separately at Hawksmoor, they are both equally as important.
James Elliot (co-founder, Pizza Pilgrims): Pizza Pilgrims was born into the social media world. The first thing we did before registering with Companies House was start a Twitter account.
Punky Patra-Yanana (head of brand and marketing, Rosa's Thai Cafe): Rosa’s Thai started in 2008 before Instagram so we have been playing catch-up quite a lot. We have needed to invest a lot in social media as we had no marketing team for years – we would open and people wouldn’t know about us, we had no presence online. Now we have hit 10,000 followers on Instagram, which is a good thing for us. The challenge is how do we grow it and get an online reputation to match the size of the business?
Henry Sandford (customer insight manager, Prezzo): It is more of a challenge if you’ve been around before the explosion of social media. We’ve spent the past two years trying to engage with our customers through social media. Giving customers that ease of access is important.
Lewis Townsend (head of marketing, Castle Rock): It’s interesting that everybody will say how vital social media is but then we have Tim Martin [Wetherspoons chairman] who’s come away from social media because he deems it to not be delivering value. You wonder if that was short-sighted or whether he thinks that Wetherspoons is bigger than social media. He’s not managing his online reputation anymore. For us it’s essential to, we see our digital representation as an extension of our reputation.
Pascal Bensoussan (chief product officer, reputation.com): A lot of the discussion about online presence is about social media, but it’s broader than that. It’s also how people find you. Everyone is using mobile phones and Google and Apple maps, and it’s how your business interacts with these platforms. In the US, 82% of people are initiating a search for a restaurant that’s near them. In their cars when they are using Siri, their searches are three times more likely to be about local businesses.
Running a social media platform
JE: We update our Twitter account every day but we don’t have a marketing department, I still do it on my phone. I’m interested in how we are going to grow it. Dipping in and out of it [but having someone else do it] is what we need to try to get to. As everyone else becomes so much more professional on social, if we don’t professionalise a little we might get left behind in terms of how we amplify our message. We haven’t ever paid for advertising and if we don’t start to do a bit of that and content creation, we might fall behind a little.
Gail Taylor (commercial executive, Admiral Taverns): We’re a lease and tenanted business so it’s a bit harder for us. We think we need to take more control over it centrally.
Anthony Gaskell (managing director EMEA, reputation.com): Is the push for better social media coming from the bottom up, with people on the restaurant floor saying they need more help, or bottom down from head office?
LT: The problem we have is that we have 16 managed pubs and there are varying levels of competence and understanding of social media in the business. Some people are very good managers but very old school and maybe don’t see the value in social as much as others so are less likely to highlight it as something that’s needed. So for us, it is quite top down in getting them to change.
Emma Cottam (retail marketing manager, Wadworth & Co): We have an internal training programme for social media. We can’t dictate how often people use it, but we tell them best practice.
LT: Sometimes there is a resistance to social media among staff of a certain age but it is so pervasive now it comes down to how you recruit. You need to ensure that the managers you recruit have a baseline knowledge of social media. We probably wouldn’t employ anyone as a manager now who didn’t, we haven’t got time to convince people of the value of it.
PPY: We shut down our Twitter account because 30% of our business is delivery and when food doesn’t arrive quickly enough, people are angry and respond on Twitter. It’s hard for us to control, so we decided to focus on channels that were more positive, such as Facebook and Instagram where people can still engage with us but in a more positive way.
Dealing with feedback
Alix Pickard (director of marketing, Hakkasan Group): We have a system that collates all feedback. It used to very much be the marketing team who dealt with it, whether it be a question or a complaint, but we are now giving the restaurant team more empowerment to deal with it. They look at the relevant feedback and are in charge of responding to it. We help them formulate the responses.
EC: It’s important to give managers information on how to respond so if the shit has hit the fan they understand what to do.
JE: We used to manage feedback centrally but now try to do it on a restaurant level. I’m really surprised how much everyone engages with it and share it. People want that feedback loop.
Fátima Diez (brand and communications, Five Guys): We let our store managers handle any feedback themselves. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve on social. For us it’s an extension of their experience in the restaurant. If they need us, we’re going to be on all the channels. We like to reply quickly.
RM: The restaurant teams have the opportunity to try to rectify a problem before it goes online. We email everyone who dined with us within 24 hours, it’s quite a personalised email which is sent from the restaurant team or the general manager. We used to handle it centrally but we now empower teams to do it. It’s currently done manually but we are looking to move to a more formalised platform to enable us to do it better. The majority of our customers like to give us their feedback.
ED: Head office has a recommended feedback template that we send out to ALL our managers but we ask them to adjust it to humanise it and to make it come from the relevant pub. We put hyperlinks into that feedback form that will go to Facecbook reviews or TripAdvisor or DesignMyNight reviews, and all scores are filtered to give us an overall company score. We look at percentages of reviews and also people’s general sentiment.
AP: If one person says something about one of our dishes we don’t necessarily change the menu, but we store that information and if multiple people are saying the same thing then we take a closer look. It’s done on percentages and sentiment around food and beverage and design – there is not one percentage we look at to change something, it’s more a gut feeling.
LT: I have always said to our pub managers to respond to the positive feedback as well as the negative feedback. We’ve had a few shocking reviews where we have genuinely got something wrong but had people come in because we’ve responded to it well. There is value in that. It’s about replying in the right way – you need to acknowledge their complaint but in the most objective way possible, saying potentially why they are wrong. When you respond to a positive review you’re bookending that positive experience, extending it even.
FE: We try to respond to feedback on social media in under two hours, and we have an average of one day in response to other feedback. We’ve found that in the UK there is a reticence for people raising an issue in a restaurant, they tend to go online afterwards and complain.
Sophie Orbaum (director of communications, Harts Group): We don’t respond to TripAdvisor reviews unless it is something really alarming, because we don’t have time to go back to everybody. It’s not a public-to-business forum, it’s consumer-to-consumer.
Managing negative comments
EC: The trick is to take it offline, but do it in such a way that looks professional to the outside world. It’s important for managers to understand how to behave online and not get into a public argument. Not every review is perfect, and do people trust the site that has only perfect reviews anyway?
RM: Online review sites can be seen as a negative but we’ve really tried to embrace them in a positive way and learn how to use that opportunity to start the conversation and fix anything if we need to as quickly as possible. We try to take it offline as soon as we can.
Megan Burton-Brown (head of marketing, Tortilla): You can’t defend yourself online anymore.
PB: Don’t be afraid of negative reviews – it’s how you react and take action to fix things. You have all these sources of information that you can no longer ignore. Paying attention to that forces you to be better.
The role of the website
LT: Is Google and social media devaluing the website? Everything you want or need to know about a restaurant you can find on Google, such as where it is, opening times, and everything about the brand on social media. Are people still putting as much time and effort into websites now? It feels like Google is pilfering all the functionality from a website.
MBB: Your website is the only place you can house fully controlled information.
HS: It has changed. The website is not about information anymore but how you portray your brand in its purest form, while still giving people the information they want.
PPY: Our website is still a massive part of the business. By having keywords it improves our ranking on Google. It is still the most important online thing for us.
PB: You have to ask yourself ‘is our website accelerating the business?’ If not, is that an opportunity? Google My Business is an extension of your website, you need to actively manage it. It’s vital to take ownership of that information because you don’t want other people to.
The changing role of technology in building online reputations
PB: Google has announced a new feature that will affect the restaurant industry in a very significant way. Every Google phone has a Google lens application and a customer will be able to point their phone at a menu and it will automatically recognise and highlight dishes. They can then tap on it and see pictures other customers have taken of the dish and even read snippets of reviews where they have specifically talked about those dish items. For Google, it’s not about reviews anymore, its about living in a feedback community. Information is created by consumers and consumed by them. The question is, is that content owned by the marketing team or the operations team? Can they somehow take control of that conversation?
AP: I’d prefer that more as a guest than as a restaurateur.
LT: It’s potentially taking the surprise out of everything.
JE: But it is equally stopping you from picking a bad dish. If you get to a place and choose the best thing on the menu because 100 people have said you should try it, then that has to be seen as a good thing.
AG: But is it not the most powerful form of marketing for someone else to recommend something, from someone who has not been paid to do so?
FE: The key is to let other people say things about you. If we say we’re fresh, people go straight into sceptical mode. But if people say it for us then it’s trying to spread that message, which isn’t going to come from the brand itself.
PB: You need to know what the key pillars that define your brand are, but at the end of the day you should not be trying to put words into customers’ mouths. You have to let your customers speak out about their great experience and help them spread the word about you, and if they have had a bad experience, try to recover the situation. We are now in an age of assistance.
TL: Will digital continue to permeate our lives more and more, or will there be some kind of resistance to it eventually?
PB: We see two big channels coming out in the next five years. The first is messaging. Apple is releasing Business Chat and there’s Google messages, and they will be able to combine virtual reality with bookings and provide menus and recipes. The second is voice-activated devices for what we call long-tail queries. People are using voice to ask very specific questions, such as ‘what’s a late night restaurant that has outside space with heaters and people of a certain age group’. It’s a long question but Google is getting smarter at that long search and finding restaurants that are relevant.
This article was based on a roundtable discussion held in association with reputation.com