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Monday, August 8, 2011

When a referral reflects badly on the referrer.

This past weekend, this sign stopped me in my tracks as I was walking into a Wendy’s.

Apparently, famed restaurant survey company and industry reference – Zagat – rated Wendy’s the #1 restaurant. A claim like this is so amazing it has to be true, so I investigated further.

It turns out that Wendy’s had both the Top Food and Top Overall rating among mega chains in Zagat’s 2010 Fast Food Survey. Still, something doesn’t fit.

What do you use Zagat for? To find which breakfast sandwich will work best on the way to your son’s Saturday baseball practice? Which fast food restaurant you should be dining at during the spare fifteen minutes in your crazy day? Which children’s meal your little ones will enjoy most while doing the least long term damage to a lifetime of healthy eating?

If I’m considering a fast food meal, it’s unlikely that I consult Zagat, or any ratings agency. The rating is far too vague to be of much use, even if it is credible, which, coming from Zagat, it may not be.

Zagat may conduct a survey rating the “mega chains” (their term, not mine), but the rating applies at the system-level, and gives little indication as to the quality of a specific location. As evidence, the “#1 rated restaurant” was out of both biscuits and sausage during the service encounter when I took this. Without debating whether they were doing me a favor, I wanted a sausage biscuit, as did the people behind me and the people behind them. Does a restaurant that on a Sunday morning negates 6/13 of their breakfast menu warrant the top rating?

A referral is a promise, usually given by a trusted 3rd party, that your experience is going to be a good one. Its critical characteristic is its credibility.

Zagat is, in general, a credible restaurant referral. It’s a good thing too, because their entire business hinges on the credibility of their referrals.

You have to wonder whether rating the mega chains doesn’t undermine their overall credibility in the view of customers who see a sign like this as they engage in a mediocre dining encounter. It did for me.

If Zagat can’t be a credible referral for all restaurants, perhaps they should focus on those in the core of their model – those where customers actively seek their opinions and rely on their credible referral.

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