Headshot of Alex Beltrani

Episode 9: Alex Beltrani

Alex Beltrani is the founder and CEO of Tattle, a customer feedback platform. Alex grew up in the restaurant business and saw his parents struggle to understand customer feedback. He built a platform for customers to provide feedback and uses that information to help restaurants manage growth and improve the customer experience. We chatted about how feedback can improve employee morale and how improved customer satisfaction correlates to the bottomline.

Episode transcription 

James: Welcome to the show, Alex.

Alex: James, it’s great to be on the show.

James: Just real quick, your parents owned a restaurant when you were growing up. Talk a little bit about your experience in the restaurant business and what customer feedback looked like for your parents.

Alex: Yeah, it was definitely unique just because my parents were working around the clock all the time. So I basically grew up being babysat by some of the waitstaff. And then when they moved on, I would be babysat by their mothers and definitely inherited a sense of enterprising and inventiveness from my parents, just from being around their sense of urgency and ownership all the time. So as I got older, obviously, we’d spend just a lot more meals eating chicken tenders and fries in a restaurant and just watching the entire ecosystem of what they built, which for me was always very inspiring and something that I wanted to aspire to personally built. So they did teach me a lot more about a concept that I try to put forth your title every day, which is management by example. And I think that feedback was really critical for them to bridge the gap between the expectations of the guests and then ultimately the execution of the team. So they, like many restaurants back in the early 1980s, adopted the paper customer comment card that was rolled out by Denny’s so that ultimately you can ask guests a series of maybe 5 to 8 different questions about their experience, such as How satisfied are you with food quality and how satisfied are you would be a service accuracy, menu, knowledge, attentiveness, cleanliness, atmosphere, the entire pillars of each guest experience. And my parents are a very unique couple. They complement each other and unique ways, just from my dad being a CPA and more numbers-oriented and like to be the builder to begin the process. And my mom is more or less the closer who takes the baton from my dad after and really manages the entire team on site. So what my dad would orchestrate would be the printing of thousands of these paper comment cards, and he would instruct my mother in the staff to place them on the tables at the end of the guests’ meals. The guests would then fill them out, the staff would collect them, and they’d bring them into the back office for my father. My father would use a very handy dandy Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, create his heatmap and basically ranking of each server so that he could surmise that, you know, Oh wow, the team has an issue during the lunch rush with speed and during the dinner period, it looks like Stacey and Steve, our waitstaff have issues with menu knowledge which are not serving the business because we want to push higher ticket price items to guests so that we can generate more money during this high demand time. So they ran this process very religiously, and even my mother, when she found deficiencies in our operational process, would create tests and a team to take. So they would be pre-shift or post-shift or what have you taking these tests to make sure that they comprehended the menu, that they can go out confidently to each the tables and they would here just very strict regulations on cleanliness and appearance and attitude and anything that feedback and use to reinforce how my parents wanted to manage the team and deliver the guest experience to their guests.

James: Yeah, my old boss used to talk about management by walking around where you walk around the office, right? I mean, in an office, it’s a little bit different, but that’s what it was. Not just sit in the backroom, but get out and talk to people. So how did you start to think about doing that in a digital world? I understand you saw kind of what Uber was doing, is that correct?

Alex: There was definitely an intersection of two events for me, and I think the first one was that I wanted to build a company and I didn’t know what I wanted to build, but I just thought that after working at another startup that sold in the sort of back of house digital product to restaurants and other brick and mortar, that I would knock on restaurant doors in New York City and just see what they wanted. So I knocked on about 3,000 restaurant doors in New York City in total for an entire year in 2015. And overwhelmingly, they came to me with some of these pains that they didn’t really like the public nature of Yelp. They wanted to build a better guest experience, and they were using this old paper comment card. And for me, that was just a huge light bulb moment. And I used the sort of antiquated nature of paper to want to basically digitize all the, let’s call it, bottlenecks that come with spearheading a paper comment card process like feedback collection, the printing, the having my dad be like the internal calculator of the village way restaurant that they own to figure out where opportunities lie. So I, I just thought there is a way to streamline everything. And it really wasn’t until Danny Meyer rolled out hospitality included in October of 2015 that he said that if his restaurants will be removing the ability to tip the staff, it’s almost like removing a form of feedback to praise or admonish the team. So I just thought that was such a unique insight whereby maybe that’ll go to replace perhaps if hospitality included were to stick, you know, ultimately the tip in a way to communicate how the guest experience went through just a guest feedback system like Uber. At the time I had spearheaded it and I still don’t think that gets enough credit for what they had ultimately built and how they’ve really elevated feedback and its importance for any on-demand experience.

James: I guess when you talk to 3,000 restaurants, like how did that work out? You just bang on their door and be like, ‘Hey, I’m this guy asking for some feedback.’ Like, how did that how did that work?

Alex: It was truly terrible and awful, but invigorating and extremely gratifying. It was just a long learning experience of me attacking different neighborhoods, either doing my lunch break at work or after work. And I generally found that owners weren’t typically in until Tuesdays and Wednesdays after work and is more of like a dead day in Manhattan. So that’s when I would be able to pick their brains, and it more or less happened to happen during the course of the entire year. So I did catch walking pneumonia once and a couple of stress fractures in my feet just walking so many miles throughout Manhattan. But I do feel like it gave me a great view of the city and it was amazing meeting all these people who definitely echoed the same pain they have with a very antiquated feedback process.

James: Now, when somebody fills out a Tattle survey, what kind of information are you trying to capture?

Alex: Yeah, I mean, the guy that we have typically used is the 250 Question Mystery Shopper Report and the anywhere from 5 to 10 question customer comment card. And I guess when you distill all these questions out, there’s about 8 to 10 core operational categories that I had mentioned and framework that my parents created for their comment card from, you know, food quality, accuracy, speed, attentiveness, menu knowledge. The list goes on. So generally within each of these categories, we need to collect feedback so that we can effectively compare apples to apples or meaning of locations to locations across a large chain restaurant. And the idea within each of these core operational categories, if you do not provide a sense of causality, mean that while it could be helpful to know that maybe accuracy is a 50%, you know, at your Pasadena location in California, if you don’t know that accuracy is suffering because of uneven distribution of toppings, specifically for maybe the build your own bowl salad or build your own pizza or whatever it is, you might not really know where to find the issue to improve, to create procedure out. So for us, we’re looking at definitely more of the the macro categories that we’re all familiar with, but also the smaller gears that win the category so that the operations team doesn’t need to feel like they’re finding a needle in the haystack or putting on their like detective or data analytics gap. We are serving them that knowledge so that they know what to attack and improve.

James: So you’re basically trying to help make it easier to distill rather than being like your dad with the spreadsheet. Right. You’re performing some of that, right?

Alex: Completely. We are becoming the internal maybe data analytics team or guests improvement team to package information in a way that a general manager, district manager and then the executives at the top of the brand can understand and take action against by building procedure, which is really where the baton and saw us. We can’t insert ourselves into the restaurant, but we can identify the opportunities that will improve guest satisfaction and ultimately impact revenue.

James: I read that you said that a one point improvement in guest satisfaction correlates to a quarter percentage increase in revenue. Like how do you know that? I mean, is that something you’ve actually correlated with the data

Alex: Yeah, it’s a good question and one where we’re still learning about because of how different it is by brand, by season, by food type. So in 2021, we collected about 1.1 billion feedback data points and halfway through the year we decided that this was mostly the prerequisite for what would require AI and machine learning differentiation to be inserted into our product. So I thought that it’d be wise to bring on an AI engineer to make sense of the relationship between feedback, data and revenue just because it feels illicit. But it’s also why you buy or use a feedback provider anyway so that you can impact revenue over time. So we collected all this data and we found a very strong correlation between the historical guest satisfaction scores of a given customer of ours and how they change during a given month. And then what happens in the next 60, 90 days for a given restaurant location? I guess the concept isn’t earth shattering, right? If guests are coming in and they’re delivered a great experience, they are more likely to come back more often. And inversely, if they come in and they’re delivered a poor experience, they’re less likely to come back more often. So for us, in the early days of figuring out predictability and forecasting of revenue using historical feedback data, that was an accurate statement. Now we’re finding that there’s a myriad of other aspects that sort of affect the forecasting. And while we can perhaps do it at a higher accuracy for some brands and a lower accuracy for others, that was more or less what we found. But still, those numbers continue to change. But it does remain the same is ultimately that we can predict and forecast future revenue at about a 97% accuracy. So now the next phase of knowing this is, well, then what can we expect? That will impact the revenue for all these restaurant locations on the platform.

James: Do you see things that you can make recommendations across brands? Right. Like, I mean, everybody has their own unique problems, but are there some similarities that you see that they can correlate between data collection and revenue improvement?

Alex: Yeah. I think every brand that we’ve seen is quite unique in their offering. You know, there is I guess different ways in which food is prepared and just inherently at certain brands will be more like conveyor belt style, which makes it fast or will be a bit, you know, less immediate, which makes it a bit slower. So for Wing specifically, I mean, they all generally suffer from issues with speed of service and speed of service is then intertwined with perhaps I would say, food quality temperature, which means that if you’re doing delivery, all those issues are just simply compounding because delivery takes more than anything. So there’s definitely strengths and weaknesses of different brands, and it’s all impacted by where they’re located. The disposition of the customers, if they’re in a unique real estate spot like airports guessing you want more hospitality and friendliness than being located in the hospital where guests want more speed. So it’s so unique. I think that the best way to look at it is almost by looking at it at the location level, because each location level tells a more intense story of the data. And I think as you expand beyond a location to a group of stores, to an entire brand, all the data gets a bit muddied. So for us we are like deeply ingrained and trying to increase satisfaction and also with the effectiveness of games at each individual store.

James: I would. What about at parent’s at the restaurant? The bulk of the people were coming into the restaurant and eating there. But now a restaurant brand can have multiple touch points, right? You have third-party delivery of website ordering, you have telephone, in person. How do you try and capture this feedback data in the omnichannel environment?

Alex: Yeah, all those are wonderful things. And the advent of those has been really, really helpful for the business. And even now, remember COVID hit and I think everyone mostly thought with the shutdowns that hospitality brands and even hospitality tech was doomed. I even got a lot of calls from investors being like, Alex, it was a good run, but for me, I just always knew that with the early signals that we saw that any advance or usage of transaction channels that were digital just simply amplify the ability to collect more feedback for each customer, which gives greater confidence and statistical significance to the data to make recommendations that increase overall satisfaction. So for us, the increase in digital ordering maybe through a platform like an OLO or a lunchbox is very powerful because the more guests that transact through that channel and provide their guests information, the more surveys that we can send out, the more feedback that we get internally, you know, any kind of kiosk, right? For maybe offsetting the rise in minimum wage or the desire to have a more expedient or fast guest experience. We’re also able to collect feedback, information they’re leveraging to send out a survey, loyalty apps. I think there’s been major investment across the loyalty spectrum with brands like Ponch and Patron Links and thanks. And I, I do think that the fact that you have these very loyal guests who spend about 20% more in revenue in the course of a year than other guests, it’s highly imperative to be able to survey these guest because their insights mean a lot because they know the brand more deeply than others. So anything that we’ve seen from adoption of technology where there is simply more transactional channels is an advantage because each of these transaction channels allow for more feedback and greater measurement into the dine in order ahead and delivery experience in ways that simply didn’t exist as it did today prior to COVID.

James: It’s just such a different way of looking at it, right? I think for a lot of restaurant owners, they had a certain model. But, you know, especially the last two years or so, it just upended what they thought. You know, I was here to make burritos or whatever the particular might be. Right. But now they’re have to be in the technology business. And I think a lot of restaurant owners are still grappling with what that means. Right. How do you reach your customers and more of a e commerce kind of environment?

Alex: Yeah. And I also think there’s advantages to it, too. You know, if you think historically for ad tech, I mean, we literally use cookies to follow people across the Internet and then send them ads for things they don’t even know they want yet. And I think for restaurants, it’s been such a fragmented way to understand who’s actually making transactions, the track ability, which is why there’s been so much, I think, chatter and excitement for customer data platform and CDP, because perhaps now everything’s digital, then brands can benefit from the landscape of knowing exactly where guests are transacting from and what would incite them to spend more. So it’s it’s definitely unique in that sense. It’s almost like a physical e-commerce location. And I do think that restaurants will only benefit the more they leverage that approach.

James: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people have said that they basically the contact management almost now is the center of the universe and not the post. Right. Because you want to know who these people are and where they’re coming to your location.

Alex: And really that feels like the essence of hospitality. The more you know, people, their habits, their preferences, the more that you can deliver them the things that they want and need, which impacts top line revenue and probably bottom line revenue to the more they come back if a great guest experience is delivered to avoid any guest erosion. So I completely agree with that sentiment.

James: So what are some of the best practices you give to brands as far as helping drive better? Guest said. And can you give me some examples of some clients you’ve worked with that you’ve helped improve? Guest sentiment?

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a myriad. And what’s exciting for us is working with every brand and unearthing or learning from their unique approach. So there’s definitely a cultural element to feedback. It’s great to have the data, but then to execute it in a way where no one feels like Big Brother is peering into their store or that they’re being admonished for the things they do wrong. It’s more of a learning experience. My piece of really takes the cake and building culture. So they adopted something called the tattle paddle and it’s really a pizza battle and it’s awarded to the location every month that is outperforming all the other stores as a way to recognize them and maybe share the insights for other stores to adopt. Blaze Pizza is another great run. But from the standpoint of data insights and decisioning, Alex Koosman of over there, who runs their data is very brilliant and how he goes about ingesting the data to make decisions. Right now we’re digging into a lot of LTOs and understanding capability in which LTOs are economically sound, deliver high satisfaction and repeatability because that’s what they want to invest more in or the element from a lot of guys. I mean, we have Andrew Eck who’s leading the charge over there for our team and he is a marketer by trade, but he knows that in order to increase the marketing budget for locations, they need to adhere to a certain guest satisfaction threshold. Because if they don’t, why would you want to send customers into an experience that would result in their slow erosion of repeat visits? So these brands are all unique, along with snappy sounds and Madrian to create a lot of their own use cases to improve accuracy. So we learn so much from our customers. And in terms of building the product, we just try to get out of the way. So whatever they’re doing that we can optimize, make better or elevate, we take in their feedback as a feedback company and try to bring it into the dashboard just simply to save them time. And it really kind of goes in consistent with what my dad did back in the day. He was doing this on an Excel spreadsheet, and the first idea to elevate it was to simply get it all in a place that can analyze the information for someone like him who is using this. So we learn a lot from our customers and I’m excited for the new things we are going to bring them again.

James: How is that? Because you talked about positive. I would assume some people, especially like waitstaff and employees, might view this as a negative, like they’re just going to get in trouble for it. But how do you try and present it that no, this is a positive thing that we can help improve operations?

Alex: Yeah, it’s interesting. There is definitely a level of resistance from certain prospects that we speak with. And I really do think it’s the uncomfortability of recognizing that there might be something to improve within yourself or the brand. And I do think there’s always just a general resistance. I think it’s just human nature and psychology to want to maybe do the work to improve. So I try to think of us as more of like a quirky coach or maybe like a dietitian or someone where like, maybe we don’t need to eat more healthier or work out more, but it’d be a lot better if we did it. We could yield these results. So I think it’s definitely a mindset of abundance as opposed to scarcity, to recognize that we all can improve and there’s nothing wrong with where we are. But it’d be a whole lot better if we’re able to elevate here. So it’s again, the artistry. I think a lot of our customers to take our data and create messaging that does not feel like it’s finger pointing, but more of a how are we all going to get better together and elevate our brand? But again, that is mostly on our teams that we work with. It’s their brilliance. And mostly we’re just trying to deliver a platform that allows them to have very concise messaging and processes that would help them.

James: Yeah, and I imagine that in general, when you’re running any business that you want to find ways to improve it, but you also want to increase employee morale. Right. You don’t want to beat everybody down and be too scared. We want them to understand, oh hey, we did X wrong. Or maybe when you do a training on this to try and move the business forward and not punish people yet completely.

Alex: And ultimately we’ve seen our data be helpful in that. I think Blaze Pizza right now is definitely on this cake for more personalization among the staff. And what they decided to do was let the team dictate the music they listened to, the vine they listened to out and basically allowed whatever they want to wear as their clothing attire as long as they had the Blaze pizza hat on. And I think what was very comforting for them after about a month’s worth of feedback collection, was that the atmosphere score that is encapsulated of of all these changes or permissions that they granted, the team remained completely the same. So they’re trying to even use the data to ensure that, you know, ultimately they can give more latitude to the team to feel more independent, autonomous themselves. And I think that’s sort of a unique case. But it really does come with more cooperation from the team, the better the overall brand. So whatever the team can execute against making people feel happy and included and not finger pointed out, that’s been a huge win in leveraging the data to actually create some change.

James: Now I know in general that a lot of operators, I think we kind of talked about this a little bit there, a little over. With the amount of technology options. I mean, there’s so many new players in food tech space these days. What advice would you give to operators who are trying to use technology but still remain a hospitality brand?

Alex: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of simplicity that can be obtained through focusing on on just a few objectives. So for I guess for travel specifically, right, we offer 10 to 12 core questions in the survey that comprise maybe four or five factors each. So the survey can be upwards of 48 different inputs that are required by guess. But we distill all this data at the beginning of every month. We’re only packaging and recommending one area for the location to improve. And the idea is that if they improve that one area, it’s called accuracy. There’s an 84% probability overall satisfaction goes up and revenue falls within about 60 days. So I guess there is a way to sort of simplify processes to focus on the core objectives that move the needle. Technology really can become a friend and it can elevate hospitality in so many ways. But I, I do think that if it’s your mission to maybe, let’s say, offer a speedy business, perhaps a kiosk is a great way to do it just because customers have more control. And if you’re leveraging feedback, perhaps not focusing on ten or 12 things every single month become mediocre. But to become more essentialist about your intent to improve. Maybe just focusing on the one objective that TATTLE recommends. So I, I do think with so much noise everywhere happening all the time, all at once, you know, distilling down to a few objectives and then figuring out the smaller gears that line them just creates simplicity, I think, for anyone doing much of anything.

James: Yeah, I think that in general, if you look at process improvement, right, it’s small little incremental changes, not just big giant changes, but ongoing that make the change completely.

Alex: Yeah, I think 1% improvement every month is like monumental, you know, come the end of the year. So it’s it’s really just small steps and celebrating them along the way and not getting too down because if there is a drawback or maybe some headwinds, it’s simply an experience to learn from to use in the next month ahead. So I definitely agree with that sentiment, too.

James: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today, Alex. I hope you enjoy your day.

Alex: Yeah. James, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.