Any intelligent operator knows the value of constructive customer feedback. Yet finding a balance between British face-to-face politeness, and moanerati online culture can be a challenge, amid a deluge of data. MCA’s Finn Scott-Delany seeks advice from experts at MCA Insight/HIM, Yumpingo, and Supersonic Inc. 

Dodo Pizza, the Russian tech-centric operator, faced an odd conundrum when it opened its first UK site: how to learn what its customers really think when they are courteous to a fault.

In Eastern Europe and Russia customers were not in the least bit shy about giving negative feedback.

“Most of them won’t have any problem saying something like, ‘was this sandwich dead for a week before you put its corpse in a microwave and resurrected it?” Max Kotin, Dodo’s head of communications said.

Yet the c450 pizza concept soon learned things were different over here, and it was a challenge they would have to overcome during 18 months of testing the pilot store.

“Folks here are super polite, and everything is coated with a few layers of pleasantries,” Kotin added. “So ‘not my first choice’ might in reality mean ‘utterly disgusting’.

“For a business, this nice culture can pose a real challenge. How do you improve your product if you can’t receive honest feedback?”

It’s a position any operator who has entered a new international market will sympathise with – understanding the wider cultural differences.

Meanwhile the hospitality industry has been notoriously slow to adopt more scientific methods of gathering data, traditionally opting for the more genial, but less reliable face to face interaction.

Even opening in new regions are areas, can pose its challenges, particularly when it comes to serving international cuisines.

For the launch of contemporary Chinese restaurant Kym’s for instance, Andrew Wong and White Rabbit Fund’s Chris Miller had no problem in getting honest feedback from Wong’s family friends who had cut their teeth in Chinatown.

Miller told MCA during the soft launch period, they would disregard any positive feedback and instead concentrate on the negative to improve the offering.

Cultural differences in the way people express themselves vary across sectors too, according to Mark McColloch of Supersonic Inc.

“In America, what I found is people wouldn’t say what they meant,” he says. ”In business, it was layered with hyperbole, they’d be like, ‘great idea!’ - even when stuff didn’t land. You’re trying to work out almost a different language.

“In food and drink they’re pretty honest – though perhaps not as rude as in Russia.

“I think what you need to do is to work with local people who understand those differences. Scottish people are more direct, Northern people are more direct. Its navigating those nuances and asking local people for the opinion.”

One way to fail at getting honest feedback is the go-to, ‘was everything alright with your meal?’ question, moments after the food has arrived, which only ever elicits a generic response.

Much more effective is a more open question, such as ‘what could we have done better’, McCulluch says.

“If you can play on the empathy and sympathy of the UK customer, and say help us be the best you possibly can be.

“There’s a fine line though – you’ve got to be respectful of people’s time.”

From a scientific perspective, consumer research is full of pitfalls and must be taken with a pinch of salt.

An understanding of the market, context, latest trends, is crucial, and one of the fundamental differences when looking at market data compared to consumer data, according to Val Kirillovs, research & insights director at MCA and HIM.

“If the sales data tells you that the market is up by 5% it is hard to misinterpret it, but if the shopper tells you that something is important to them you need to do a lot more digging around to understand why that is and if that is really the case.”

Questionnaires for instance should not lead respondents to specific conclusions, viable answer options are important, while checks and balances to cross-reference the answers is helpful.

“Consumer feedback is a lot more powerful with the use of benchmarks, you need something to compare it to and look at it in the context. In this case you will understand a lot clearer what ‘not my first choice’ actually means”, Kirillovs adds.

The dawning realisation of the importance of consumer feedback in a highly competitive, fragmented market, has led to a number of technology players emerge with solutions.

One of those is Yumpingo, which cites its success so far to the “unobtrusive and natural” way it solicits opinion.

Founder Gary Goodman describes lost opportunities for insights where dissatisfied guests leave, never to return.

“It may be politeness where consumers don’t have anything nice to say, so they don’t say anything at all,” he says. “I believe it’s more that restaurants don’t offer their guests the chance to share their opinion without the risk of conflict.

“Guests won’t want to enter into what may be a contentious conversation when all they wanted from their visit was a burger, a beer, and perhaps some social time with friends. Review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp have built their brands on the principle of a one-sided conversation often steeped in negative commentary.”

The ability to have an honest conversation was a vital part of the gaining a broader insight into the customer journey, Goodman said.

And like an most consumer-facing technology a “frictionless” experience is cited as key to use and adoption.

“We have found that consumers are amenable to sharing their feedback if the task of doing so is quick and painless, and doesn’t present any awkward interactions with restaurant staff. Restaurants learn the positive, which is to be celebrated and repeated, as well as the negative, which a restaurant can use to improve.”