Gauging customer satisfaction has never been easier – just check social media. However, getting that feedback in time to diffuse any potential problems, remains a key challenge for operators. Gary Goodman explores how Net Promoter Scores can be mined and fake news avoided online

‘Fake news’ has well and truly entered the popular lexicon – and it’s got a far wider application than just Donald Trump’s tweets.

In the restaurant sector, fake news recently hit the headlines in a big way with the story about a non-existent restaurant, The Shed, being tipped as the best restaurant in London on TripAdvisor, after a journalist reportedly ‘gamed’ the rating site with false reviews. A BBC investigation has also alleged that fake five-star Trustpilot reviews are able to be bought and sold online.

Such underhand tactics may come as no surprise – people will always try to play the system – but they underline a serious point: how can restaurateurs sift out the fake news from customer reviews and get to the truth about what guests really think? Of course, in most cases, reviews are genuine, and come from known sources, such as direct from customers filling in surveys or from mystery diners. But still – how much can we really trust aggregated feedback scores in order to draw meaningful conclusions? Are Net Promoter Scores (NPS) the best measure and how truthful are NPS in reality?

NPS has become the established metric for gauging customer satisfaction – and with good reason. It is a relatively straightforward way of measuring performance from a customer viewpoint, which has broad application and is widely understood. It’s not easy to ‘game’ the system, and many of the core questions that are always asked, such as how likely guests are to recommend to friends and family, are well-established, making it easier to track performance over time and eliminate the risk of asking the wrong question, thereby generating worthless or misleading results.

It’s clear that many of the world’s most successful companies have the highest NPS scores in their category, such as Amazon and Apple, adding weight to its reliability as a measure and suggesting that, used correctly, there is a strong correlation to profitability and shareholder value. And that’s the key point: as long as it is used correctly.

Bigger is better

It’s important to point out that NPS is not always perfect. Like other metrics, it’s possible to be skewed. Sometimes, this may have to do with asking the wrong people the wrong questions, but largely it’s an issue of sample size. Most commonly used NPS trackers don’t deal in volume. Direct personal feedback is rare, hard to record and risky to rely on. Broadly speaking those that do leave feedback are only the very happy or unhappy customers, creating results that fluctuate wildly and do not reflect the views of the vast majority. It’s these customers that don’t normally speak up, I would argue, that restaurants want to hear from most. It’s here that they will find the truth.

This need for scale is a view shared by Carlson, the company that grew TGI Fridays over 40 years to the powerhouse it is now around the world. In a recent interview, its vice-president of business planning made clear that, for them, achieving a minimum responder threshold for NPS was essential. Without this critical mass, NPS risks being effectively meaningless. This threshold may differ from business to business, depending on size, location, target market – any number of businessspecific factors. At Yumpingo, we have found that individual sites can generate an average of 3,000 reviews per month through a one-minute online review.

What’s the point?

The other important point to make about NPS is that the score in itself is only part of the story – it’s what you do with it that matters. It needs to provide insight that can be acted upon, so that restaurants can know exactly why guests are leaving unhappy and drive continuous improved performance. Enhanced customer experience should lead to higher sales, providing that vital link between high NPS scores and financial success that Carlson points out is the real driver here.

That kind of insight is not easy to generate if data is gleaned from small numbers of customers or from a disparate variety of sources – TripAdvisor reviews, monthly mystery diners, complaints to staff or customer service desks, as well as survey responses and others. But from our discussions with ‘c-suite’ executives of major restaurant brands and independent restaurateurs alike, it’s clear that getting a single point of truth from one reliable source is now business-critical.

It’s not just an overview they’re looking for – they want detail, on every dish, every service, and every location at scale to benchmark performance. They know that having this level of granularity and precision can enable them to take very specific micro and macro business decisions to increase NPS and make customers happier.

After all, a happy customer is more likely to be a brand ambassador, recommending restaurants to others and Instagramming dishes, returning repeatedly, and spending more – the definition of a true promoter. Conversely, detractors or even passives/ neutrals can be turned into promoters, if businesses can take the right targeted actions to improve their offering.

We’ve seen businesses able to generate near 20% uplift in NPS scores in just a few months using data-driven decision-making to take targeted actions on the basis of reliable food intelligence information.

Delays in finding out what guests think can have serious consequences, especially in an online world where views can be shared with thousands of followers at the click of a button. The key is to engage with guests before they even get to social media – putting problems right and diffusing dissatisfaction. This is the essence of brand damage limitation.

The truth is out there and it’s possible to discover it, by giving the silent majority a platform to be heard. The risk to restaurant businesses from fake news is very real – whether that’s deliberate false reviews or, more likely and just as importantly, wrongly relying on misinformation from skewed, limited, fragmented or otherwise flawed data sources.

What’s needed here is the use of big data, on which appropriate decisions can be made and actions taken to close the feedback loop and continuously improve service delivery, boosting profitability and creating value. The casual-dining sector shouldn’t lose faith in NPS.

It’s still the right measure, it just needs to be deployed well, and on the right scale. That’s the only way to be sure NPS is giving you real ‘news’ that can be trusted wholeheartedly.

Gary Goodman is chief executive of food intelligence platform Yumpingo