The domination of big-chain fast food and quick-service restaurants might be due to end, according to research from marketing information firm, NFO WorldGroup, which says that the key to continued diner loyalty is still in providing more than basic 'good service'.
NFO's research, which evaluated customer satisfaction at some of the largest chain restaurants in the US, revealed that customer expectations about the 'casual dining out' experience are rising, fuelled by standards set by the growing 'fast casual' restaurant category (which NFO says are similar to fast food chains, except for slightly higher quality food and atmosphere).
However, while quick-service restaurants (QSRs) currently dominate the marketplace, with 80% of people using them regularly, one third of QSR customers claim dissatisfaction with several aspects of their dining experience, compared with less than 5% for fast casual restaurants.
According to the NFO study, well-balanced and nutritious meal choices are not what customers are looking for when they choose a McDonald's or Taco Bell for a meal or a snack.
While reasonable waiting times are important, customers are also willing to wait for freshly prepared meals at a Subway or Panera Bread.
Promotions and rewards were found to have a moderate impact on customer loyalty but a personalised service was seen as far more important to regular customers, and had a much higher impact on their satisfaction and loyalty.
The study shows that, while 60% of restaurant diners are strong advocates of their favourite eating places, it's not the basic features (such as menu options and price promotions) that keep them coming back; instead, it's the special touches, such as improved and personalised customer service.
The consumers surveyed also said that many of the largest fast food chains struggle to deliver a basic level of service that is consistent across all locations.
"With chains providing so many of today's eating out options, consumers are crying out for a generic experience to be turned into a personal one," said the study's director, Shubhra Ramchandani, who is the North American stakeholder management practice leader for NFO WorldGroup. "So while each visit may be predictable and consistent, it is also friendly and familiar, and our research shows that this keeps customers coming back time and again. Fast casuals are setting high standards in this area while the quick serves are failing and are likely to face a loss of market share in the long run."
NFO suggests that QSRs can reduce the dissatisfaction among their core customers by delivering the following necessities:
- Friendly and polite service staff;
- Service staff who are knowledgeable and able to answer questions;
- Service staff who show pride in their restaurant;
- A restaurant that shows it is in touch with needs of its customers;
- An enjoyable overall restaurant atmosphere.
The study was conducted in the summer of 2003 from a nationally representative sample of 600 consumers in the US, based on the perceived performance of restaurants they visited most often in the previous two months.