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There are a lot of theories about how people make the decision to buy a meal. To those of us who have spent considerable portions of our lives trying to decipher the process, it's still somewhat mind-boggling.

Do people think first about what they have a taste for? Which is the closest, most convenient place? Is the price right for the budget this week? How much do they care if it's healthy or indulgent? Are they making it a social occasion? Taking it out? ALL OF THE ABOVE?

When we're trying to develop a message to consumers that will make them want to come to our restaurant, sorting out the motivation that will sell that meal is also difficult. Attention spans are short and getting shorter. The number of messages people receive is multiplying. How do you decide what information is important to communicate, and what points to leave out.

What is most important is definitely not your personal opinion, or that of your friends or significant other. One way or another, you have to find the motivation for the customer's decision from the customer. How do you do that? Ask them!

Comment cards are a start, but the information you get barely scratches the surface of what you need. A relatively small number of people take the trouble to fill out comment cards, and they often want to register a complaint, try for a next-purchase discount, or make not-very-useful remarks such as, "that was really tasty."

In today's online society, offering an incentive to take a short online survey (about five questions to answer, which is about all the time they will give you) could yield some important insights — if they are the right questions. For example, suppose you only invited the people who ordered a certain menu item (like the daily feature) to answer the questions. That kind of focus gets a lot of participation, and almost always tells you nearly everything you want to know about the item.

The more concentrated you can be, the better. There's always another day to focus on another aspect of your operation.

Personal phone calls are not the easiest method for gathering intelligence, but are probably the most fruitful. Here's what you might do: Have employees tell diners that the owner or manager would like to get their opinion about the restaurant with a phone call tomorrow, and buy them something next time they visit.

If the customer agrees, the name, phone number and best time to call is written down for follow-up the next day. If they say they don't want to be called, it's the end of the conversation. With the personal call, you not only get the information, but have an opportunity to make that person a regular customer (instead of just an electronic "friend"). It's not the easy way, but it works, and most of the calls should make you feel good about your restaurant.

Focus groups, mystery shoppers, attitude and usage studies — all the research techniques provide valuable information that can improve sales when they are analyzed and applied professionally.

But there's nothing like conversations with customers to bring operators the down-to-earth feedback they need. That's what makes the dining decision a little less difficult for both of you.

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Barry Klein

Latest posts by Barry Klein
Barry Klein
Barry Klein is best known for creating the Ronald McDonald character and led the "You Deserve A Break Today" advertising campaign for McDonald's. In his current occupation as a marketing consultant, Klein has developed business-building concepts, new products and more for Coca Cola, Pizza Hut, Quiznos, Cadillac, Ruby Tuesday, Friendly’s, Perkins, Pay Less Shoes and others. He has been a key contributor to such projects as Stuffed Crust Pizza for Pizza Hut, Prime Rib Subs and Torpedoes for Quizno
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