Pie Five, Firehouse, First Watch,Pei Wei execs discuss 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of online reviews

| by S.A. Whitehead
Pie Five, Firehouse, First Watch,Pei Wei execs discuss 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of online reviews

About 61 percent of the dining public are checking online reviews before visiting restaurants, according to a 2016 survey.

Yelp, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other services accumulate all the virtual world has to say about eating at any particular restaurant and hang it out there for all the world to see. And fair or not, that means a lot of potential restaurant customers get turned off of to brands due to often unworthy negative reviews long before the restaurants have a chance to defend themselves. 

It's the kind of stuff that keeps operators up at night, and that's why an educational session on the subject at this year's Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Dallas was so well attended. During the hour-long discussion, ReviewPush CEO and moderator Lee McNeil, picked the brains of four social media managers.

Panelists included:

  • Pie Five's Kimberly Turman
  • Firehouse Subs Katie Milligan
  • Pei Wei's Sharon Koval
  • And First Watch's Eleni Kouvatsos. 

All four agreed that Yelp was the most popular source of reviews for restaurants, although most said Facebook was growing in its popularity for restaurant reviews. Each keep tabs on those two sites as well as Twitter and a handful of other sites.

The group said the overall number of reviews for restaurants just seems to be growing, especially over the course of the last half-year. That fact alone made some of the managers express growing fondness for platforms that can aggregate and organize the reviews posted, as well as services allowing a brand's social media team to respond to reviewers individually or as a group. 

All of the brands closely monitored the most popular review sites, and all but one handled the vast majority of review response duties in the corporate office. First Watch and Firehouse Subs allowed exceptions for franchisees, who wished to handle the responses themselves, as the session's audience members learned in the question-and-answer session, some of which we share below.

Q: Do any of you allow franchisees to respond directly to reviews of your brand?

Milligan of Firehouse:We have 1,050 locations and we handle and respond to all of those (corporately). The majority of franchisees don't have time to respond to them, so we try to do all of them. We do have a handful (of franchisees) who are very passionate about handling their own reviews, and we do allow that. 
Turman of Pie Five: We allow our franchisees to respond directly because we feel like a lot of it (review subject matter) is operational and we think they can really respond best to that.

Q: What approaches do you use in your responses to convert negative reviewers into those who are more positive about your brand?
Milligan of
 Firehouse:  We had a guest who was upset and took to social media with a bad review because the location he went to had not had his "sour cream and onion" potato chips. … We responded (to apologize and seek a remedy for the negative reviewer)… but then he wrote another review to review our response and said he wasn't happy with us. …

So, we shipped him an entire box of 100 (bags of sour cream and onion potato chips, after uncovering his home address). … Then he posted that on social media … and now he's a customer for life. So that turned out well and it's one of those things I will never forget, like even 15 years down the road. 
Kouvatsos of First Watch:In one market, … we took over some locations of (another breakfast chain) which we had a customer get really unhappy about and he posted to social media. We responded with a letter from our president, who (addressed) all his (issues) with First Watch. As a result … (the customer) liked that so much that now he's a customer for life. 

Koval of Pei Wei: For us, we find that sometimes getting "tough love" from our customers can be the best way to learn. Like, we recently made a decision to remove one of our legacy items from our menu … and we immediately got a lot of response from a lot of fans who said they really wanted it to come back. We would never have known that if we hadn't been tracking that online. … As a result, we (brought) the item back on April 5. 

Q: Have your brands found that reviews really can highlight a problem that needs attention or work?
 Pei Wei : We've changed some of our teas in response to some of the problems customers have said they had with our beverages. Also we've gotten some (complaints) about our marketing that … highlighted a technical problem that was occurring between mobile ordering and ordering through our website. 
Milligan of Firehouse: We've seen an increase in reviews about our online ordering site, so we're now revamping some of that site because of some of the feedback we've gotten. Speed of service is also a big thing for us and we've had some reviews with negative feedback about that issue that showed some of our franchisees were struggling with labor issues. … That's why we're now rolling out a new back office system. 
Kouvatsos of First Watch First Watch: All of our restaurants really focus on freshness and quality of ingredients. We don't even have microwave heat lamps in our kitchens because of that and we were getting some reviews that (customers') eggs came out and they were cold. That called that problem to our attention and then that became one of our service focuses — to get that food out as soon as it was ready — and we saw the number of our (negative) reviews on that issue go way down. 

Topics: Customer Service / Experience

Companies: Pie Five Pizza Co., Pei Wei, Firehouse Subs

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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