The next time you head to your favorite chain restaurant, don’t hesitate to ask for an inside joke with your side of fries.

A recent study shows that Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crispers, Chicken Broccoli Pasta Alfredo Bowls and Chocolate Molten Lava Cake aren’t the reasons for customers returning to national chains week after week. It’s the "emotional connections" that waiters and waitresses form with the clients that result in more business and higher profits.

PeopleMetrics, a consumer research firm, observed that the amount and quality of server and client interactions in about a dozen major food chains, including Chili’s, Applebee’s and Red Lobster.

Findings indicated that the more engaged a customer is ("How is everything going over here?", "Can I get you a refill on that?") the more likely it is that those customers will not only visit again, but will act as free positive advertising for the restaurant.

These satisfied customers have been shown to tell friends about how they enjoyed the experience, go out of their way to return, and, in general, remain loyal to the restaurant and the brand.

"I mean if you compare menus they all serve the same stuff," said Mary Kirshmann, a student at Western New England College, who agrees that the food is not always the penultimate factor when choosing a dinner destination. "They just have to be courteous."

Sounds simple enough, but what are chain restaurants doing to take advantage of this information?

Brinker International Incorporated, parent of Chili’s, On the Border and Macaroni Grill, has already put some of this philosophy into their business plan.

"We know we must give our team members the appropriate autonomy to provide the highest level of hospitality, making our guests feel special whenever they dine with us.," said a statement in their 2007 annual report.

The proof is in the Portobello Mushroom Fajitas. Brinker has enjoyed a 70 million dollar increase in revenue since 2005, bringing them to $4.4 billion net gain this year.

However, Darden Restaurants, owners of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and The Capitol Grille, reported only $201 million in net earnings this year.

A possible difference: While Brinker focuses on customer service in their annual review, Darden steadfastly relies on the quality of their food.

"Our relentless pursuit of quality and, above all, freshness," is Red Lobster’s public advertising strategy. The word "fresh" appears at least ten times in the "Our Story" section of the Red Lobster website.

In comparison, Chili’s web page advertises their support for charities, allergen information and customer surveys, implying that their interest and concern for their patrons’ morals, health, and opinions.

"(Restaurants) need to hire and retain employees who make the dining experience fun," said Kate Feather, PeopleMetrics’ Vice President and director of the study. "Restaurants who can quickly and effectively resolve customer concerns are the clear winners."

By reducing employee turnover rates, these corporations will gain more experienced and familiar staff — therefore increasing customer satisfaction. It is also much easier for experienced and relaxed waiters and waitresses to solve any issues that may arise for a customer.

What does this mean for your next dinner outing? You may find a few extra napkins at your table. Your server may be uncommonly peppy and interested in how your day is going. But remember, it isn’t your current visit that the brand is worried about; it’s your next visit, and the one after that, and the one after that…

About The Author

Jocelyn Carleton is a journalism student at Quinnipiac University

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