Ovation brings customer feedback into the digital age

A person holds a phone in their hand with a text response using Ovation's platform. The message says "Sorry to hear about your cold food."

Written by James Shea

Ovation founder and CEO Zack Oates knows his company’s product works — he is a customer.

Ovation helps restaurants and others in the hospitality industry receive instant feedback from customers. Recently, Oates ordered a main dish and side salad and had it delivered to his house. When the order arrived, the side salad was not included. He used Ovation’s platform to fill out a survey about his order and provided feedback. He let the restaurant know that the side salad was not in the delivery. Within minutes, the general manager had texted him back, apologized and sent a gift certificate. 

“I started this company,” Oates said. “I knew what was supposed to happen, but as the consumer, it was still really special.”

Based on an observation

Ovation was founded in 2017 based on Oates’ observations. He has worked in restaurants and other hospitality businesses throughout his career and saw that the hospitality industry does a terrible job of soliciting feedback from customers. Businesses might place a survey card at the door or on the table. Others want customers to log into a website and fill out a survey. These types of surveys generally provide no valuable insights. 

“Survey were designed for the people who pay for them,” Oates said. “They were not designed for the consumer. They were not designed to be a good experience. They were designed to get paid for, and the people who will pay for them are the ones who want to know more about their brand. They ask questions that they are interested in. The consumer is the last thing on the list.”

At the same time, online review sites like Yelp and Google tend to be places where people complain about the service rather than post compliments or provide constructive feedback. He noted that customers are three times more likely to leave a negative review on an online platform, because customers are more motivated to express frustration with an experience.

Oates started Ovation with interviews. He interacted with hundreds of restaurant and hospitality industry professionals across the country and realized he was onto something.

“I found out that the thing I was observing was the thing that they were really frustrated with,” Oates said. “They felt like they lost control of their guest feedback.”

Oates gathered a team and launched a beta version of Ovation. He brought on a group of early investors including former NFL quarterback Steve Young.

“He was actually one of the first investors,” Oates said. “Loved the team, problem, and product.”

Ovation uses SMS technology and QR codes. Customers use their phones to access the Ovation survey with a QR code. The survey only asks two questions: how was the experience and say more about it. Once the survey is completed, a message is sent directly to someone at the restaurant. Oates said that many times the owner or general manager is the one who receives the feedback and responds. The platform gives restaurants the ability to send a message directly to the customer’s phone, which is what happened when Oates did not receive his side salad.

He said the immediate feedback adds value for his clients, because Ovation is simple and provides instant two-way communication with customers. Businesses can quickly adjust and meet customers’ needs. The platform also helps restaurants understand areas of the experience that were positive. 

The product was formally launched in 2018, and the company is growing. Restaurant groups see the value of feedback. A recent survey by restaurantowners.com found that Ovation was the top feedback tool within the industry.

Reconnecting with customers

When the pandemic hit, Oates saw an opportunity. Ovation was the perfect product for delivery. Restaurants, virtual brands and ghost kitchens generally receive limited feedback, especially when the order is placed online and delivered through a third party. 

“That is where a lot of people who are doing ghost kitchens see Ovation,” Oates said. “They are like, ‘yes,’ because what are the other options as a restaurant owner? A long-form survey? Hope that online reviews are going well? It’s so hard, and if something goes wrong, what do you do as a ghost kitchen?”

Ovation reconnects restaurants and virtual brands with customers even when the dining experience is at home. With dine-in customers, the manager can walk around and talk with customers. The restaurant gets instant feedback and makes a connection with the customer. The same process can happen with Ovation. Customers provide feedback as soon as the food arrives. 

“We have to find a way to keep the humanity in hospitality,” Oates said. “That is what a lot of these brands are feeling like they have to do. If you are a restaurant and you are becoming a manufacturer of food, you are missing out. It’s about the connections. It’s about the community.”

Solving problems with data

Besides direct feedback from customers, Ovation also provides valuable data. Ovation takes feedback from the top review websites and the data from Ovation’s survey and runs the information through an algorithm. A clear presentation of the data is given to the restaurant. With the information, managers and owners can identify trends. 

He cites the example of a restaurant that sold gyros. The restaurant kept getting feedback that the chicken was dry in the late afternoon. The business had multiple locations, and Ovation analyzes data across multiple locations and multiple brands. The problem occurred at multiple locations, and thus the restaurant understood the problem was operational. After an investigation, the organization learned that too much chicken was being prepared at lunchtime, and hence became dry when people ordered it later in the day.

“After changes were made, customer satisfaction went up and feedback went up,” Oates said.

Changes here to stay 

Oates said it has been an interesting year to be in the restaurant business, and he is glad that Ovation has been a valuable tool for the industry. He believes the changes in the restaurant industry are here to stay. People have enjoyed the convenience of curbside pickup and delivery and the restaurant industry must continue to adapt.

“We have opened up a new channel of convenience that consumers are never going to walk away from,” Oates said. “You do not, in any industry in the history of the world, have consumers opt to make things more inconvenient.”

Hospitality business needs to find ways to continue to connect with customers in this new environment. He knows that can be more challenging when the interactions are virtual, but he believes Ovation provides an easy way for restaurants to start a dialogue with customers and build customer loyalty. 

“Loyalty is about the connection,” Oates said. “It’s about having that consistent great experience. Loyalty is not about punch cards. That’s fake loyalty. True loyalty is when you have gained and maintained your customers’ trust.”

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