My father owned a neighborhood bar for 60 years. Dad didn’t have to learn about customer service; his attitude embodied it and the success of his business confirmed his aptitude. He didn’t care much about what other operators were doing; he just knew his customers and made sure they got what they wanted. His focus was a six-block circle around his place, and he ruled that circle. Advertising was by word of mouth, just the way to build a neighbourhood business.
Times have changed. Running a restaurant is more complicated today, and operators are forever seeking new ways of “putting butts in seats.” And I see plenty of marketers hawking solutions to empty seats as if they’re secrets only a few are privileged to know.
But getting and keeping customers isn’t that complicated. I don’t mean it’s easy—it’s just that the principles that worked for my dad in the ’30s still work today.
Clicking with people requires understanding your customers
Today, the buzz is all about “customer engagement.” Well, that’s just a fancy way of saying “clicking with people.” Engagement is the foundation of customer service. We engage with people and people engage with us all the time.
If you go somewhere and like how you’re treated, then you’ve experienced good customer service. You’re likely to become a regular. It’s the same with your restaurant. That formula hasn’t changed since Dad’s day. What’s different is the why and how and what you use to engage customers.
Why. Why are you in business? “To make money” isn’t the right answer—at least in terms of engaging customers. Think of a “why” that appeals to your audience. Maybe it’s to serve amazing food or cater to busy families or provide a community gathering spot. Make the answer the basis of your business plan.
How. How do you make your business better than the competition? How does that difference appeal to potential customers? Build your marketing plan on this answer.
What. What marketing vehicles do you use to engage with your target customers—billboards, community sponsorships, Facebook and other social media, or radio ads? The options are endless; just be sure to use the vehicles your intended customers notice.
Answering the why, how, and what requires you to identify and understand your target customer. I advise operators to head to the Internet and start digging. You’ll find that Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and seniors have unique menu expectations; they have different preferences for décor, pricing, lighting, dining hours, communication methods, loyalty programs, and peak experiences. What group(s) will you target? How will you make your operation more engaging?
Five ways to increase engagement across all groups
- Target your desired customer. This is so important that it bears repeating. Learn all you can about the group(s) you want to target and constantly do things that appeal to their needs and desires.
- Sweat the small stuff. Use sound accounting principles, create a budget, define success, build a plan to achieve it, and measure your performance against your key performance indicators. These are the basics of any business.
- Update your processes. Does your wait staff still take orders on a menu pad? That’s a slow, inefficient process fewer and fewer age groups find engaging. Look into electronic menus, tablet ordering, and a connected POS system. Today the average person uses five electronic screens; are you providing service in the same way?
- Always evolve. Use any and all tools—electronic or otherwise—to free up more of your time so you can focus on evolving your business. I met an operator with nine sports bars who keeps tabs on all of them in real time on his smartphone. At any given moment he knows what is and isn’t selling, and he can use that information to adjust engagement strategies.
- Lead by example. Get out in the front of the house and show your staff exactly how you’d like them to engage with customers.
Do these things and you’ll create an engaging operation that earns repeat business and ensures a steady revenue stream.