I once worked at a restaurant that required two pieces of fried spaghetti to be added to every plate. This finishing touch aligned with the owner’s vision for the restaurant. In reality, guests immediately removed the spaghetti antennae, which ended up all over the floor. To customers, the garnish was just an annoying gimmick.
It’s often difficult for restaurant owners and customers to meet in the middle. Restaurateurs tend to be passionate, but unbending dedication to a creative vision isn’t a winning recipe for success. In an industry where 80 percent of restaurants fail within five years, resonating with customers is essential. Learn to get inside your customers’ heads and implement important feedback — or risk perishing.
Break out of the owner mindset
For restaurant guests, the experience of dining out comprises many distinct parts. When each piece is executed well, guests leave happy and eager to return. But just one discordant note can negatively color their opinion.
Perhaps you’ve incorrectly defined customer service as immediately asking customers how their food tastes before they’ve had a chance to really dig in. (Hint: Guests probably find this annoying.) Or maybe, like my former employer, you still believe garnishes are a unique finishing touch when customers just don’t find it impressive.
Many operators believe they know what their customers want but allow their creative vision to cloud their business sense. To obtain objective insights, take a step back and consider your restaurant from the customer’s standpoint.
There are many ways to tap into the minds of your customers. Social media is a particularly powerful tool. It’s not uncommon for restaurant owners to profess disdain for social media because customers are more likely to be negative than positive. I get it — a negative review can damage your reputation and feel like a personal attack on your greatest passion. But whether you participate in the online chatter, your customers are using these platforms to check your ratings and reviews.
Instead of letting negative comments hurt your feelings, approach social media as a valuable source of intel. It’s one of the only places you can effortlessly learn what isn’t working directly from your customers.
Your menu can also tell you a lot about your diners. Look beyond the menu’s line items and sales; you’ll find interesting patterns under the surface that can tell you what draws people in and keeps them coming back. Which items encourage repeat guests? Which are big sellers for one-time visitors? Once you’re armed with this information, don’t be afraid to tweak your menu to increase customer retention.
3 strategies to switching up your perspective
Getting inside the minds of your customers isn’t a one-time task; it requires constant effort. Three simple strategies can keep the customer viewpoint front and center:
1. Enlist the help of your staff.
Your staff members interact with customers more regularly than anyone else, so they should be the first to know about any behavioral insights you discover and want to act on.
Don’t discount your staff’s ability to pick up on valuable customer feedback. Keep this a top priority for everyone from greeters to servers to bussers by making it a regular topic of preshift meetings. Ask for their input, and frequently remind them of the vision they should be bringing to life and the ideal guest experience. If you know your regulars, make sure your staff does, too. Let them know in advance if an important guest is expected so they can work their magic.
2. Focus on hospitality.
Your food is important, but the experience you deliver customers is equally essential. Many restaurant owners believe that if they offer great hospitality in line with their vision, everything else will take care of itself. Often, they’re right. Nine times out of 10, guests want to dine at a restaurant where they know someone. Small gestures at the beginning or end of a meal — like acknowledging customers as they leave and thanking them for their patronage — can personalize their experience and make a lasting impression.
3. Be proactive.
Constantly strive to learn more about your customers, and train your staff to pick up on valuable customer cues. Whatever insights you glean, act on them. All the information in the world does you no good if you don’t apply it. Don’t wait to make a change until after you notice a dip in customer loyalty.
And don’t be afraid to embrace changing trends. The ubiquity of technology, for instance, means customers might be comfortable with servers having mobile tools. Experiment, and see what works. Just make sure to engage your customers and determine how any change affects their experience.
As a restaurant owner, your passion and vision are important. But don’t forget that you’re also running a business. The key to staying afloat is keeping customers happy and coming back for more. And the only way to do that is to regularly break out of your owner mindset and consider your restaurant from the eyes (and stomachs) of your customers.
Paul Goetz is the chief revenue officer at Upserve, a restaurant management system.