We’ve all seen it happen. Businesses, including restaurants, that pull in the crowds one day, the next day start to drift off the map. For some, it happens quickly. For some, it’s a slow drift over years.

When businesses experience just a short time in the sun, we can imagine either their market research was off and the first burst of customers came out of mere curiosity…or they responded in their origins to a short-term trend that came and went, a trend that didn’t offer obvious paths to development.

Nothing lasts forever, but there are some organizations, restaurants among them, that last longer before they start to struggle or go on life support. These restaurants start in response to a trend that represents something fundamental and offers opportunities for growth, development, and shifts in course without losing the original premise. With a solid start, remaining relevant as a restaurant is about being a good listener.

Here’s an example: In the 1930s, McDonald’s started serving “fast food” at an attractive price, first from a food stand, then a carhop drive-in and finally in a streamlined self-service environment. They learned from their experience what worked, what didn’t and what people wanted.

The McDonald’s brothers innovated with setting up their kitchen like a factory assembly line for more speed. In 1955, Ray Kroc came on board, taking charge of a franchising operation and opening his first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois. Over the years, the McDonald’s brothers, then Ray Kroc, narrowed and refined the menu, constantly streamlining their idea, assuring a uniform product throughout a growing operation. The menu, quick assembly line process, reliability and low price were a winning combination. To come up with that combination, these leaders listened, heard and applied what they learned.

In the 1990s, much of McDonald’s growth came from outside the country, where they showed flexibility (they listened) with regard to local tastes and food preferences while retaining their original vision. In the U.S. during the 1990s, franchisees complained there were too many franchises, cannibalizing each other’s sales. In addition, there were several menu flops as the company attempted to respond to current trends. As McDonald’s continued to experiment in the 2000s, it faltered. Its image for fatty, unhealthy food in an age when consumers seek healthy food hampered its growth.

In 2011, McDonald’s engaged in some major upgrades in menu, decor…and in July, they announced they would build their largest restaurant in the world on the 2012 London Olympics site. In January 2012, the company announced revenue for 2011 reached an all-time high of $27 billion, and that they would update 2,400 restaurants and open 1,300 new ones worldwide.

But by spring 2015, headlines trumpeted McDonald’s plunging sales, mass closings (700 locations) and losses in the fierce fast food fight. A May 2015 headline tells us “McDonald’s, Unable to Fix Its Dismal Monthly Sales Numbers, Will Now Just Stop Sharing Them.”

What can we learn from this story? First, some observations:

  • In the early years, McDonald’s not only tapped into contemporary needs and interests of a vast potential market, they listened to what those customers said with their dollars. Hot dogs were off the menu very early because they sold so many more hamburgers.
  • They listened to customers when they offered increasingly streamlined, quick meals at low prices, all enhancements of their original idea.
  • They listened to customers when they expanded into worldwide markets, adjusting their menu to suit local tastes and food preferences while staying with their original concept of fast, clean, consistent, relatively inexpensive food.

So what happened by 2015? There were several strong trends the company either ignored or missed or failed to address sufficiently: 1) a worldwide recession that left many traditional McDonald’s customers still struggling in 2014 and 2015, 2) a growing movement toward healthy foods, that is, fresh, “real” foods, with an emphasis on plants, 3) an animal rights message catching on, and 4) concerns with workers’ rights, prominent among them, food workers.

The conditions and consumer interests of the time might be different from those in the 1930s, but one wonders, had the company been more engaged with these trends, could they have done better? With better listening, could they have taken their core idea, fast, accessible, reliable, consistent, very affordable food and adapted it to the requirements of our time?

McDonald’s did make attempts, but in a time when consumers want instant gratification, the time frames for change are protracted. In May 2012, McDonald’s announced they would end pork gestation crate use by 2022. It wasn’t until 2015 that they announced a cage-free commitment for laying hens. The voices for these kinds of changes and more were speaking as early as the 1980s. One wonders what would have happened if McDonald’s had listened to these voices instead of fighting them.

The American Institute for Cancer Prevention, the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association all warn about risks associated with red meat. The warnings are not new, just the formal, research-backed warnings. Consumers had these concerns before the major medical studies confirmed their worries. Still, McDonald’s ubiquitous hamburger remains the centerpiece of their menu. Again, one wonders what would have happened if they had listened, then taken their original idea, a quick assembly line process, reliability and low prices, and applied it to a relatively new but rapidly growing trend in food sensibilities that has staying power. Not a Bandaid here and there but a concept for the time.

How do you listen in the restaurant business? We’re going to assume you’re already underway based on a concept with strong fundamentals, something that has lasting power. Here are 5 things you can do to stay at the top of your game, and they all have to do with listening:

  1. Be friendly. Most people love talking with owners! Talk to your customers. Ask them what they like about your restaurant or what else they’d like to see. Let this be an ongoing conversation. Make it easy for them to talk with you. Be visible and accessible. Make a contact form and contact information easy to find on your website and in your social media pages. Listen to what people tell you, record it, file it, and see if you can detect patterns over time.
  2. Set up a Twitter account and follow industry influencers, foodies and other restaurants. Scroll through the news feed for 10-15 minutes daily to see what people are talking about. Listen to them. Check trending topics. Print and keep a file of dated articles or posts that attract your attention. Over time you might spot an intensifying focus on certain ideas or issues.
  3. Money talks. Listen. Choose your cash register carefully. Make certain that your system of recording sales allows you to note exactly what is selling. Set up spread sheets or some other visual that allows you to spot trends. If something isn’t selling, take it off the menu for the time being but not out of your records. Over time, you can see developing patterns you can enhance or diminish on your menu.
  4. Experiment and offer incentives for feedback. If the feedback comes, engage in active listening. This means along with the incentives for people to tell you what they think, when you do hear from them, indicate somehow that you heard. Send a thank you note or email. Host a customer appreciation party where customers can talk with others and with you about what they love or would like to see. Keep a vote tally on your website or social media pages so participants can see how their comments fit with others. Announce changes that respond to customers’ comments.
  5. Good listening isn’t completely passive. If your customers like what you offer, they want you to succeed and continue providing them foods they enjoy. If business declines, don’t wait until it’s insupportable before you let them know what’s happening. Speak with them simply and directly, and tell them what you need to keep serving them. Ask for their feedback and ideas. Take their information, and review it next to your enhanced item-by-item sales records, real-time conversations and social media feedback. You’re told them what you need; now listen to what you can do to make it easy for them to provide it.

Of course new technologies make all of this easier. Encourage conversation through a weekly email newsletter that lists any specials, soups of the day or special events. Once you’re building an email and phone number list, experiment with text messages. Conduct votes and surveys online, and keep the results so you can view them along with other data.

Use every opportunity you can to gather information from customers in fun and pleasant ways. Make your cash register sing for you. Keep up with trends in wider geographic areas via Twitter. And remember: just listen.

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