Huddle House’s Journey to Building a Better Brand Experience
Since the brand’s inception in 1969, US casual dining restaurant chain Huddle House has experienced significant growth, now operating in over 200 locations across various states. Their data-driven culture enables them to leverage valuable insights for continuous improvement.
GuestXM sat down with former Brand President & Chief Operations Officer Troy Tracy to discover how Huddle House strategically uses sentiment data to pinpoint outliers in the customer journey, how cross-team collaboration plays a vital role in driving team efficiencies, and how the brand takes feedback from data-analysis to decision-making.
Breaking Down Departmental Silos
Q. Breaking down data silos between departments, like marketing and operations or marketing and finance, is crucial for team alignment. How does Huddle House maintain alignment among teams?
In my experience, having collaborated with numerous finance professionals and CFOs, their roles often lean towards the analytical side. There’s a natural inclination to seek data validation, a “prove to me the data is right” mindset. From a leadership standpoint, the key message is a collective one—all departments share the same objective. It’s about affirming the accuracy of the data and aligning efforts to validate it. Breaking down barriers and steering everyone in the same direction becomes possible by tying the insights from the marketing perspective to what the data indicates.
When business results are good, you don’t question their authenticity. When stores are doing well, those aren’t the ones you focus on. So aligning on the same dataset has helped challenge the team, but more importantly, helped us focus. As with any team, we are constrained to some degree by resources, one of which is time. We’re constantly asking ourselves: What department needs support? Who needs to be involved? Which initiatives do we prioritize?
The GuestXM Experience
Q. While one catalyst to investing in new customer experience (CX) technology was breaking down departmental silos, it seems the other was also making brand sentiment data accessible to team members outside of the head office to truly make change happen at all levels of the restaurant experience. How did the GuestXM platform provide that for the Huddle House team?
It was a cornerstone of how we got the information out into the field for both our franchise teams and our company restaurants. What we used the tool for was really to dial into the text analytics—negative and positive sentiment—and hone in on those sections both at a district level, regional level, and/or restaurant level. That allowed us to start taking action and identify trends because guest sentiment is cyclical. They change over time.
Q. Before using GuestXM, Huddle House mainly relied on surveys for data. Now, with the switch to a platform that gathers direct and indirect feedback data through surveys, social, and review sites, how did this change affect the team’s thinking and strategies?
Surveys have their value, offering valuable insights into various aspects. However, our journey began with the desire for more comprehensive insights. Whether your brand relies on a loyal customer base or deals with a constant influx of new transactions, surveys can certainly add value. Yet, in my perspective, surveys alone don’t paint the complete picture. While they are useful, there’s an inherent risk in that you shape the questions, potentially creating a situation where the results appear more favorable than the reality, depending on how the questions are framed.
There’s also the challenge of incentivizing surveys, which might lead to biased responses. It’s not that surveys are inherently bad; they can be effective when used correctly. However, there’s a higher probability of misuse.
On the other hand, the data and insights gleaned from social media platforms present a different reality. It’s unfiltered, reflecting what guests and customers are genuinely expressing across various platforms. This is the raw, unadulterated truth. While there have been discussions about manipulating online ratings, the essence remains—low guest metrics and negative social media comments correlate with underperformance, and vice versa.
In essence, surveys can provide valuable data, but they don’t capture the entire story. The reality is embedded in the unfiltered sentiment shared on social media platforms, and leveraging this information becomes crucial in understanding and improving overall brand performance.
Q. With GuestXM, Huddle House was able to evaluate performance not only at the brand level but also in comparison to specific competitors. How did your team leverage this competitive data?
Looking at the data in terms of brand performance helped us not only from an ops perspective but also provided focus on where our field teams spent time. It validated what a lot of our leadership may have been seeing in restaurants or the market. So now you have validation from the guest, and you can tie that to the operating statements and the P&Ls (profit and loss statements) to see the entire story. You can then deploy these resources to a target set of restaurants and work toward making improvements.
Huddle House Operational Improvements
Q. Looking at past data, there was a time when the brand experienced a decline in service scores. How did the Huddle House team address this issue?
In line with our ongoing theme of collaboration and data-driven decision-making, we initiated several efforts. Operationally, we simplified some procedures, acknowledging the changing workforce dynamics and skill levels, particularly with the employment of younger individuals.
Additionally, when we observed a decline in service metrics, we didn’t attribute it solely to external factors like the aftermath of the pandemic or staffing challenges, which are explanations often provided by field ops teams.
Exceptional service is at the core of our brand promise, and we are committed to always providing the best customer experiences. While understaffing might lead to service or atmosphere-related issues, like a slightly untidy store, it should never compromise our attentiveness and kindness toward customers. It was crucial to resist rationalizing away the problem and delve into the data to identify the fundamental issue related to the level of service provided. The key was acknowledging the issue, paying attention to the data, and taking decisive actions without succumbing to rationalizations.
We systematically examined each segment influencing our food outcomes, be it preparation, flavor, or other factors. Our focus honed in on addressing challenges, such as perceived difficulty in preparing certain items. Operational simplifications were implemented to enhance speed, ensuring hot food stayed hot and cold food remained cold – essentially, optimizing our business operations. This approach guided modifications in restaurant systems, influenced training tools, and fueled various initiatives.
Another noteworthy initiative involved addressing past concerns about managers not being visible in our open kitchens, a key aspect of our brand. Recognizing the impact on the guest experience, we made efforts to ensure managers were present and engaged with guests. This proactive approach significantly contributed to improvements in service scores and ambiance, highlighting the effectiveness of focusing on specific areas for enhancement.
The concerted efforts extended beyond operations, involving departments like marketing, R&D, and collaboration with our chef. Adopting a holistic approach paid off, leading to significant improvements in our food quality. It’s worth noting that we weren’t initially in the top quartile for food quality, but the comprehensive strategies and hard work across departments contributed to the positive transformation.
Q. In terms of improving areas in which the brand might be underperforming, take us through the process of deploying resources to address the challenges. Can you pinpoint a moment when you realized that the team’s efforts were successful?
It’s harder to stay on top than it is to get on top, and Huddle House continues to embody this sentiment across various categories. But to make a finer point there, I would say I started feeling pretty good about it around the fourth or fifth month of consistency— this restaurant, this market, this region, is quote, unquote, fixed, it’s on a good track. And then it became about the staying power to keep it there. It is all about what our guests are saying. If you’ve accepted that, act upon it, and then take initiative, you can make targeted improvements.
Huddle House has a longstanding history of consistently high-value scores across various services, ensuring high volume, favorable prices, and competitive portions. Despite meeting our core value criteria, we reported a sudden decline in value scores with GuestXM’s sentiment data. The initial assumption was a price increase, but further analysis revealed potential negative value sentiments. Collaborating with the marketing team uncovered missed opportunities to communicate the brand’s great value.
Additionally, recognizing the need for a remodel after several years contributed to the dip in value. Addressing these issues through strategic marketing initiatives and operational improvements resulted in a positive turnaround, as seen in the latest Quarterly Business Review (QBR).
Q. Unlike managers and in-store staff, your field team can’t be present on-site every day, but they can monitor data as if they were, which gives them particular insight into “off-premise” guest sentiment. How did Huddle House approach and treat off-premise data differently, particularly when dealing with challenges that arise once the guest is already at home and potentially dissatisfied with aspects like missing utensils?
We emphasized a simple principle—treating third-party delivery drivers as off-premise customers. In conversations with our teams, we stressed the importance of acknowledging these drivers as customers and catering to their needs, such as offering them a drink if they have to wait for the food to be prepared. The idea behind this approach was to challenge the common belief within our organization that slow food preparation alone was to blame for low scores in off-site orders being served cold. While there might be some truth to that belief, our main focus was on understanding the underlying reasons behind the situation.
Upon analyzing our CX data, it became apparent that cold food was a significant issue regarding off-premise orders. This awareness allowed us to address the root causes and make informed decisions on how to enhance the off-premise experience.