Food & Drink

From your smartphone to their ears: Social media plays a growing role in customer service

Uniform check: Rickey Climes, left, a server at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Miami, empties his apron pockets in front of restaurant manager Kim Lay at a pre-shift meeting.
Uniform check: Rickey Climes, left, a server at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Miami, empties his apron pockets in front of restaurant manager Kim Lay at a pre-shift meeting. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

At 10:45 a.m., Rickey Climes is seated at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Miami’s Design District. He isn’t there to look over the menu, though — he’s about to be tested on it.

Dressed in all black, Climes waits among fellow servers, hosts, bartenders and other front-of-house employees for the daily pre-lunch shift meeting. In front of them, chef de cuisine Niven Patel, looking somewhat like a college professor, calls for someone to describe barrelfish, the day’s special.

“It’s a white fish. Light, flaky. It tastes almost like snapper,” says Climes, a 24-year-old server who aspires to be a sommelier. Patel nods at the correct answer.

Next on the meeting’s agenda are social-media reviews.

“We talk about the good and the bad. Repeatedly,” says Charles Bell, director of operations for The Genuine Hospitality Group, which owns and operates Michael’s Genuine, The Cypress Room, Harry’s Pizzeria and other ventures from Miami chef-restaurateur Michael Schwartz.

Bell reads verbatim snippets of praise and criticism from various online review sites. One diner wrote about waiting 10 minutes before another table’s server took their order.

“That’s what is known as ‘a save.’ But we don’t want any of our customers waiting that long to order,” Bell says, collegial but firm. “If you’re in the weeds, ask for help. And thank you to that person who stepped up.”

Another customer complained on OpenTable about the restaurant’s lighting and not being able to read the menu. Bell reminds the team they’ve all been given pen lights to address that.

To demonstrate, he calls on Climes for a uniform check, and out of his apron pockets Climes produces two pen lights. It’s his second “A” for the meeting.

This kind of attention to social-media reviews is not uncommon for restaurants, hotels and other businesses in the hospitality industry.

Broward County-based Shula Steak Houses monitors customer feedback every day on Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor and Yelp. Online reviews even led to a physical redesign of the first Shula Burger location in Fort Lauderdale.

“Customers wanted changes in the atmosphere. We heard them when they said it was not exciting enough,” says Carrie LaNoce, Shula Burger’s director of marketing who also owns the restaurant’s franchise in Delray Beach.

The company brought in more TVs, brightened the restaurant with new paint colors and created a more theatrical interior with an open kitchen concept.

“I’d call it higher design now,” LaNoce says about the customer-driven changes.

Stars equal profits

It’s a far cry from making sure water glasses are regularly refilled.

“Great customer service can bump a review one star higher,” says Yelp Miami’s community manager, Cassie Glenn, adding that diners consider a lot more than food quality in their reviews.

And restaurants profit from each extra star in online reviews. According to 2011 research out of Harvard Business School, additional stars can boost a restaurant’s earnings between 5 and 9 percent.

Despite all the attention to social-media reviews, the hospitality industry is aware that many — especially millennials — prefer anti-social forms of customer service, bypassing a live person altogether.

When he checks in to a hotel after a late-night flight, Joel Fiegenheimer says he’d rather not have to make pleasantries with the front-desk clerk.

“I just would be very happy to take my credit card, slide it through a kiosk, get my room key and go to bed,” says Fiegenheimer, a professor at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

Get the basics right

Millennials, roughly defined as the generation born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, are driving this demand for self-sufficiency. They are digital natives, accustomed to getting what they want when they want it via smartphones and other on-demand technologies.

They also now outnumber Baby Boomers, so the hospitality sector is paying close attention to their independent behaviors in categories like hotel check-ins, restaurant payments and retail shopping.

The Starwood Hotels and Resorts chain, which operates the W South Beach and the Westin Fort Lauderdale, among other South Florida properties, is experimenting with keyless mobile check-in. At the company’s Cupertino Aloft Hotel in California, Starwood has put robotic butlers to work to deliver items like a spare toothbrush or a shaving kit to guest rooms.

The shift away from human interaction also is happening at fast-casual restaurants, a surging subset of the food industry. Panera Bread has an app that allows customers to order and pay for takeout orders. When it’s time for pick-up, the customer walks to the counter, finds the bag with their name on it and leaves. Speaking to a person is not necessary.

Roger Duarte, CEO of Miami-based My Ceviche, says his restaurants allow for online ordering, but the company is still investing in a smartphone app. The technology doesn’t come cheap, and Duarte says his company’s priority is on consistent and quality food and service.

“We know technology is important to stay competitive,” says Duarte, who co-founded My Ceviche in 2012 with chef-partner Sam Gorenstein. “We are a young company, though, and are very much focused on operations right now. You still have to get the basics right.”