Nearly everyone is familiar with the term “preventative maintenance.” It is the process of routinely inspecting and improving equipment and replacing worn or torn parts before the whole machine breaks down.
The rationale is simple: Routine inspection, repair and maintenance mean that the equipment lasts longer, processes are not impeded, return on investment is greater, and operations become more efficient because nobody’s food or beverage is being held up because of a faulty ice machine, slicer or mixer.
Knowing that routine repair and maintenance improve service, sales and efficiency, why is it that very few operators apply this same mind-set to another key area of operations—marketing?
Here are a few basics to master in the art of preventative marketing:
All customers are at risk. The first step of an effective marketing plan is not to project the customer traffic you desire, but rather protect the business you already have. How many foodservice operations have you seen over the years that put all of their marketing efforts into acquiring new customers and fail to invest similar resources and training into maintaining the customers they already have?
Job one of any effective marketing plan is to draw a line around your current customers and protect erosion or defection of this foundation because of sloppy fundamentals or competitive intrusion. This means investing in routine and creative “mind maintenance” of your customer-facing crew via training so that they connect with and show appreciation for all the customers they interact with daily. Every effective marketing plan begins with explicit targets for retaining customers.
Know the community “influentials.” Preventative marketing means that you are proactive about anticipating the near and long-term changes in the marketplace relative to growth, demographics, work projects or competitors. It means that managers must connect with the community at all levels—both socially and politically. Get to know the key contacts and influentials in the local clubs and fraternal organizations.
“We have a program called ‘Crossroads’ that teaches our managers how to take the initiative to build strong, mutually beneficial relationships with the movers and shakers in our communities,” said Mike Stout, regional vice president for Buffets Inc. in Minneapolis. “As a result of building those relationships, the movers and shakers tend to hold more events or gatherings in our restaurants as opposed to [with] the competition. The people who attend these gatherings then go out into the community and encourage other people or organizations to eat and meet in our restaurants. Our stores become intersections of frequently traveled ‘crossroads’ for the people in our communities. These operations become the talk of the town.”
Also become friendly with key players in the mayoral, police, fire, health, city council and planning or zoning departments—as well as the reporters who cover those areas for the local media. Stay in contact with them weekly. Be the first to learn about proposed or pending government decisions that may affect your store or market area.
A restaurant operator should never be surprised about planned new road construction, office or housing developments, building permits for competitors, proposed new regulations and tax hikes that will affect your trading area. You should never learn about it by reading a newspaper article. You should already know. Work your social network. Find out who has applied for building permits in your trade area. Ask your distributor sales reps who is opening new restaurants near yours. They know long before you do. What you don’t know will hurt you in this industry.
Be self-competitive. Smart restaurant operators or managers are not sitting around waiting for the competition to kick their butt; they own their communities. They proactively reach out to the community first and simultaneously protect themselves from competitive intrusion by thinking like a rival would. They begin by asking themselves this question: If I were the competition, how would I put me out of business?
The answer to this question is to perform a thorough written S.W.O.T. analysis for your restaurant or restaurants. Detail each unit’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Every manager and multiunit manager should be involved in the process. Discuss what you need to do to enhance the strengths, shore up the weaknesses, expand the opportunities and block the threats in each store.
Use the following questions to jump-start your Preventative marketing mind-set:
What do competitors fear about our concept, products and services? What do competitors or customers claim is our major weakness? How do competitors try to differentiate their restaurant from ours? What common complaints do our customers raise? What do our customers like best about us? Which customers have gotten the greatest value from us? What distinguishes those customers from others? What customers did we lose most recently? Why? When we criticize ourselves, what problems do we identify? What are we doing to improve? What intangibles—accuracy, service, quality, value—are our toughest sell? What demographic or industry trends will affect our sales next year? Five years from now?
What do competitors fear about our concept, products and services?
What do competitors or customers claim is our major weakness?
How do competitors try to differentiate their restaurant from ours?
What common complaints do our customers raise?
What do our customers like best about us?
Which customers have gotten the greatest value from us?
What distinguishes those customers from others?
What customers did we lose most recently? Why?
When we criticize ourselves, what problems do we identify?
What are we doing to improve?
What intangibles—accuracy, service, quality, value—are our toughest sell?
What demographic or industry trends will affect our sales next year? Five years from now?
The foundation of excellence in any marketing plan is built on execution and training. Protect and enhance your relationships with current customers before you try to drive more traffic, because “great” marketing can kill a “bad” business. If an effective external marketing campaign successfully drives in lots of new customers, but then your team can’t retain them because of your poor internal marketing skills—due to lack of training—you will lose money and market share every time.
“Everybody wants to build,” said author Kurt Vonnegut, “but nobody wants to do maintenance.”