Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Technological Trends, Even for the Little Guys

I realize the McKinsey quarterly’s article on “Ten tech-enabled business trends to watch” was probably intended for academics and larger corporations but as I read, I could think of a number of take-aways for some of my last places of employment. This past year, I’ve held down a number of “interesting” food service jobs, from scooping gelato at an overpriced gourmet shop in Columbus Circle to catering local political party meetings at an indoor go-karting facility (yes, this actually happened). I was always interested to check out the restaurant and catering services ratings on crowd-sourcing and forum consumer review websites such as Yelp, Urban Spoon, and Chowhound, which I depend on to steer me away from bad service and bad food.

And I found that our anonymous online reviewers typically pinned the outcome of the companies’ problems right on their head, from slow service to insufficient supply of popular items. The reviews so consistently critiqued the same things that it occurred to me that my employers probably never checked the reviews and were missing this opportunity to use the “network as organizations” or utilize “distributed co-creation.” I know of service companies that do utilize these social networks to directly communicate with the communities that have declared themselves experts. Once, after giving a lukewarm review to a lunch spot, the owner (yelp allows business owners to “claim” their pages) wrote under my review apologizing for the issues I had discussed, restated their principles to cheap, local food, and offered a discounted lunch. It changed my view of the restaurant, knowing that the owner was prowling social networks for business insights.

For one restaurant where I worked as a hostess, almost every online review, even those that are overall positive, mentioned the noise factor. This emphasizes both the strengths and weaknesses of distributed co-creation. Customers are capable of identifying the main problems of the business that are visible (or audible) on the receiving ends of transactions, but usually not the sources. Whether the noise factor was a result of table organization, excessive staff discussion, the attached kitchen, or just the drunk “real housewives of Westchester” like moms at the bar is something that the restaurant itself must investigate. There is only so much the network can provide.

Furthermore, my supervisors failed to realize that an easy tool for competitor analysis is imbedded in many of these crowdsourcing and social network platforms. Customers freely state alternatives in their reviews—where they plan to go next time instead, under what circumstances they plan to go back, not to mention that clicking on a username reveals all reviews that have been written by that individual, so that restaurant and service groups can clearly identify where else their customers go. Market survey for zero cost.

Almost every company has a web presence, whether they control it or not. Even the smallest, non-techy local restaurants must accept the technological trends that are impacting their businesses. These trends are providing information (often free) unlike ever before. To keep track of competitors and share in the creation of problem identification, I hope my previous employers can get online.

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