A core part of business success that most business owners overlook (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) is to ensure a smooth, seamless, pleasurable customer experience from beginning to end. The entire process, from the very first moment a customer (or prospect within your target market) begins to engage with your company in any way whatsoever, all the way to the end of the interaction must be as easy and pleasant as possible for him or her.

If it is, you’ll get more repeat business, more referrals, and can charge higher prices. If it isn’t, you’re either going to go out of business or you’re going to have to blow your brains out with marketing and sales to overcome your higher customer attrition rates.

The easiest example I can give in this area is restaurants. I’ve consulted with several restaurant companies in my business consulting practice over the last 20+ years and I personally go to restaurants all the time (weekly, in fact). So while I’m not a restaurant expert, I am a business expert with a lot of restaurant experience, and as such, I will lay out what I would do if I owned a restaurant (and I never would, since restaurants is a horrible and brutal business) from the standpoint of the customer experience.

I’m going to assume, from this example, that the restaurant is a normal, mid-range one. Not a fast food restaurant (which is a completely different type of business from a standard restaurant) and not a fancy / upscale restaurant. Just a normal family restaurant aimed at the middle class.

The first thing I would do would be to eliminate any long wait times. You might think this is impossible. How the hell do you eliminate any waiting if the restaurant is full and you still have more customers that want to be seated? The answer is that you don’t let them wait.

I don’t want my restaurant to have the customer experience of “that place where you have to stand around and wait for an hour while you’re hungry.” I love the food at Cheesecake Factory. I mean I really love the food there. But I almost never go there; I actually hate going there. Why? Because I don’t like waiting around for an hour to get a table. It’s a horrible customer experience. (And no, they don’t do reservations during peak hours. I checked.)

Therefore, I would choose a maximum wait time, say 15 minutes, and if there are any more customers piling in after the wait is 15 minutes, I would very politely turn them away. I’d probably give them some kind of fancy coupon they could use later, but I would instruct my staff to tell people that we just aren’t taking on any more customers at the moment, and turn them away. That way, the only people waiting are those waiting 15 minutes or less, which is a much less negative customer experience than waiting 45 minutes or an hour.

You could argue that turning away customers is also a bad customer experience. While it’s certainly not a good one, it’s still far less negative than sitting in my restaurant for an hour while you’re bored, impatient, and hungry. Instead, when we turn you away, you’ll go sit at some other restaurant and be bored, impatient, and hungry. Perfect. That’s what I want. Have a bad customer experience at my competitor’s place, not mine.

The next thing I would do is have a very strict first-come-first-served system at the restaurant. Have you ever been waiting for a table, and some group who came in after you got their table before you did? Of course you have, probably many times. How did it make you feel? This makes people very angry. It’s a horrible customer experience.

A restaurant owner or employee might say, “Well, the restaurant probably did that because a table that was the size of the other party became available before your party so blah blah blah blah logic blah blah blah.” Doesn’t matter. The customer doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your internal logistics. All the customer sees is that they’re waiting, bored, impatient, and hungry, and some people who came in after they did got their table first. Then they rage about how unfair it is for the rest of the evening.

At my theoretical restaurant, this would never happen. All parties would be seated in the order in which they arrived, period, end of story (unless they had a reservation, if my restaurant did that). If, for some strange reason, a table opened up to accommodate a party that came in after a party before them, that later party would be forced to wait until the party before them was seated so that the first party doesn’t feel insulted. And remember, there would be a maximum wait of about 15 minutes for everyone, so this would be no big deal. I don’t want anyone feeling insulted at my restaurant. That’s a negative customer experience.

Another thing I would do is enforce an absolute, do-it-or-get-fired protocol of all bottles at all the tables being filled to at least 50% at all times. They would never be allowed to go below this. How many times have you tried to use some ketchup and realized there wasn’t enough in the bottle at your table? So now you have to look around and steal ketchup from some other table. If the other tables are all full, now you’re screwed, and have to wait to find your waiter so you can get some.

Shitty customer experience. At my restaurant, the bus staff would be required to go around and refill bottles every X amount of minutes to make sure this never happens, and they would be instantly fired if they failed to do this. (Obviously my restaurant could not exist in anti-business cultures like Suicidal Europe, where self-employed people generally aren’t allowed to fire people whenever they want from their own companies.)

Implementing modern technology would also be key. Too many times at a restaurant, you have to wait, and wait, and wait until your waiter (or any waiter) walks within earshot so you can make a request. With today’s technology, this is completely ridiculous.

At my restaurant, there would be a waiter call button on every table that you could press. This would softly ring in an earpiece in the waiter’s ear with the table number. The waiter would be right over as soon as he/she was finished doing whatever he/she was doing. This kind of thing is very inexpensive these days and I’m absolutely staggered that restaurants still don’t do this.

You get the idea. It’s a lot of little things that make up a huge difference. You don’t want your customers to attribute negative experiences to your business regardless of the logistical limitations you think you have. It’s bad business.

12 Comments on “The Customer Experience – Restaurants Example

  1. Good points!

    More Plants

    Random question – Why don’t more restaurants, office buildings, and public places have more plants?  To me, it seems like one of the easiest way to improve the environment of the location. If I was a commercial landlord, restaurateur, or involved in managing public spaces, more plants would be one of the first things I would want to implement. It might violate health codes or something, but in general, it seems like an easy way to take a place up from decent to good and good to very good.

    Good Service

    If I was organizing a family-style restaurant (I don’t really have any insider knowledge, so there might be good reasons why these things don’t happen), I think all the stuff you mentioned factors in. Off the top of my head, Cracker Barrel and Olive Garden seem to have great service in general.

    Wait Times

    A good example, that seems to work fairly well, is Cracker Barrel.  They have long waits but they give you a buzzer, you can look around the store, and sit in all the rocking chairs.

    What I would do would be to have a bigger bar, so when people are waiting they could get drinks and simple appetizers (some sort of bread and dip with free refills – free with the meal but not with just drinks).  If there was still a wait, I would also have a better waiting area where you could drink and eat appetizers, though not sure how that would work with fire codes, etc.

    I would very politely turn them away.

    This might work, but I think that many people would still stay and wait anyways.  It might work, but it could really backfire if the employees don’t manage it correctly.

    Bottomless Cups of Water

    In terms of refills, etc, I don’t usually have the issue with the sauce bottles usually, but with water, etc.  I would just do the pitcher of water on the table.  You can use smaller pitchers.  Sort of like at Olive Garden, I think.  It doesn’t work for other drinks, though, as easily because the ice melts in the pop and tea.

    The earpiece might work for some stuff, and could be really cool, but would need to be done right or it might get really annoying for waiters.  It’ll probably happen pretty soon – some sort of video system with AI that monitors tables and anticipates things like that.

    All parties would be seated in the order in which they arrived, period, end of story.

    I’ve seen some weird stuff with seating, etc. I overhead a mildly strange discussion where the restaurant wouldn’t let a party of 12 sit at the one big table because they made more more with walkins (and splitting up the table) than with a large party reserving in advance.  (They told this to the customer who was trying to organize his Mother’s birthday – after he kept asking why not) It seemed weird and the people went to a different restaurant because it.

    I think things can usually can be sequential, unless it’s a 10-top and the next in line is 2 people, for example.  In general, there could always be room at the bar for overflow, if you have the space and design it well. Of course some family-style places might not have a bar. You could call it something else.

     

  2. I don’t want my restaurant to have the customer experience of “that place where you have to stand around and wait for an hour while you’re hungry.”

    Posh nightclubs use that model, even artificially inflating scarcity, and it works for them quite fine.

    I wonder if any of your restaurateur clients actually gathered and analyzed data regarding return rates vs waiting time.

  3. I noticed that your entire post is about eliminating the negative experiences. You didn’t comment on creating fantastic experiences (“delighting” your customer).

    Can you please comment on the psychology behind that?

    Thanks!

  4. Why don’t more restaurants, office buildings, and public places have more plants?

    Good question!

    <looks around office; sees no plants>

    I noticed that your entire post is about eliminating the negative experiences. You didn’t comment on creating fantastic experiences (“delighting” your customer).

    Can you please comment on the psychology behind that?

    That’s mostly because most business owners focused on “delighting” the customer don’t pay any attention to cleaning up the negative experiences as well. Chuck E Cheese restaurants are an example of this; they’re so focused on wowing your kids they forget things such as the fact that they’re usually located in old, dirty, smelly, dilapidated buildings that disgust parents.

  5. Condiment bottles are supposed to be filled before or after the shift.  That is a management problem, not an employee problem.

    Turning customers away — I don’t see that happening.  Nobody tells a paying customer to just go away.  Unless you are starbucks and you are so nuts you tell homeless bums to come take up space and make a real mess of things.  If you want to improve the waiting experience you get a good reservation system that matches table sizes with incoming group sizes.

    Waiting isn’t necessarily bad.  You have a lounge/bar area that serves appetizers and make a lot of money selling those high margin items.  Everybody brings a smart phone, so most are not even aware of the time passing.

    Ear buzzers… now you’re just trolling.  Imagine having 6 people all buzzing you and the kitchen wants you in 3 places too.  Good luck with employee turnover, which is already debilitating.  That 1 in 100 competent person just left for a better paying job with no headaches.

    Actually I think this whole article is an april fool.

  6. Condiment bottles are supposed to be filled before or after the shift.

    What if that’s not sufficient to keep them full? I don’t think “after the shift” is good enough for all restaurants.

    That is a management problem, not an employee problem.

    Then those managers would be fired as well under my system.

    Turning customers away — I don’t see that happening.

    Correct. Nothing I said above will actually happen. That’s the sad part.

    Waiting isn’t necessarily bad.  You have a lounge/bar area that serves appetizers and make a lot of money selling those high margin items.

    Sometimes, some restaurants have that. What about the ones that don’t? (Which is most of them.)

    Everybody brings a smart phone, so most are not even aware of the time passing.

    Incorrect. I’m quite sure if you took a scientific poll of these people, most of them would be at least mildly upset at having to wait.

    Ear buzzers… now you’re just trolling.  Imagine having 6 people all buzzing you and the kitchen wants you in 3 places too.

    Technology could easily solve that problem. Don’t allow the kitchen to buzz the waiters. Have the buzzers go off on a staggered delay (perhaps 60 seconds) if more than one comes in at the same time. Etc.

    We live in an era where technology solves almost every logistical problem like this you can think of. It’s completely invalid and ridiculous to point at a problem like that, say “but what about this?” and then throw your arms up in the air in surrender.

    Actually I think this whole article is an april fool.

    It would certainly appear that way to people who have a hard time thinking outside the box.

  7. Anybody who waits in lines needs life coaching.  The number one life hack available to us all is doing things off peak.  You go out to eat Tuesday thru Thursday you’ll get great service and possibly even fresher ingredients.

    People who beat themselves up by crowding into “venues” on the weekend deserve what they get.  You get to wait in traffic jams, not find parking, wait in lines, get rushed to eat and leave and have stressed out service providers.  And pay peak pricing for the experience.  What fun!

    The only thing I would do as a restaurant owner is go down the line offering mid week coupons.  I’d also have a waitress constantly taking drink and appetizer orders, served on paper plates if necessary.  You find a way to profit from it.

  8. Anybody who waits in lines needs life coaching.  The number one life hack available to us all is doing things off peak.  You go out to eat Tuesday thru Thursday you’ll get great service and possibly even fresher ingredients.

    People who beat themselves up by crowding into “venues” on the weekend deserve what they get.  You get to wait in traffic jams, not find parking, wait in lines, get rushed to eat and leave and have stressed out service providers.  And pay peak pricing for the experience.  What fun!

    I agree and I have an entire blog about that but it’s completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. This article was written from the hypothetical viewpoint of a restaurant owner.

  9. I wrote a similar summary of the clubbing experience and how i would improve it.  Its crazy that i go out dressed nice, fully prepared to spend hundreds of dollars, but im immediately treated like a dog by the bouncer, made to pay a cover while his thug buddies get in for free, then i have to share the dance floor, and the women, with these same people.  They dont buy drinks, theyre aggressive with the chicks, they start shit, and the bar makes most of its money off of guys like me.  Not them.

     

    I would create an app-integrated dance club/bar.  Credit card is linked to the app so my favorite drink is ordered when i arrive and i show a QR code to a customer service mixologist to receive it.  The only people allowed in have been preapproved , maybe even with a membership fee.  So no thugs off the street.  No bouncers or low class security guards period since the door wont open unless youre approved.  If the percentage of males to females is skewed, Ladies in the city receive special limited time  discount notifications to incentivize them to show up and party.  No lines for a bartender, just multiple mixologists making drinks which you order thru your app, whom you payor tip electronically like i mentioned, which will really speed things up.  You can see upcoming somg options and vote on the music.  You can also send a private direct message to anyone in the club.  Drink discounts are given if you send a certain number of messages or maybe swipe on other club goers while in the club to incentivize women to connect with men.  All of the mixologists have profiles too so you can downvote them for poor service, review them, or tip through the app.  The next day, the app will ask you to rate other users/clubbers you chatted with and maybe even leave a review, so people build their profile up over time, and bad apples get asked to stopt coming.  A few nights per month will be reserved for top reviewed members only, and high spenders.  Top rated Guys also receive first notifications if there are tons of women, deals on their fav drinks, fav music is playing, etc.  Maybe the pedometer in the phone also rates how many people are dancing, indicating that its a good night to show up.

    Now that would be a great customer experience at a club.  Feel free to take the idea since Ill never be interested in being a club owner

  10. You might be right about the specifics of restaurant management, but it is a bit if a guess. Is “I had to wait thirty minutes” worse reputationally than “they never have a table, and send you away?” I have no idea. And regarding condiment bottles it’d be perfectly possible to replace them entirely each time people sat down they same way you do silverware, you just need a stack of extras that the staff fill when they have downtime like they do with the silverware.

    But the key is that it is all a bit of a guess. I just recently listed to a presentation from a guy who wrote some software that screen scraped yelp reviews and performed NLP analysis on the text. From this he found out what customers were actually complaining about (the answer was — it depends on the particular nature of the restaurant). If I were running a restaurant (and given that it is a terrible business, I never would, except maybe as a hobby) I’d be doing that every six months, or maybe even continually.

    From this, especially if I had a chain, I’d be doing A-B analysis and looking at the results to determine what worked best. I might even do it on my competitors too to see what they are doing right and wrong. If you want to run a successful service business data is the key, and if you have data and don’t respond, then you deserve to go out of business.

    One advantage of a restaurant is that it has a LOT of customers, so you can look at them statistically to get good data. I run a software consulting business and so have vastly fewer customers, so that sort of feedback is hard to come by and tends to be very grainy.

    However, one thing you are right about, you do need to think outside of the box, and try solutions that “can’t be done.” Because they usually can be.

     

  11. Plants require someone with a green thumb to keep them from dying and looking like crap.  If you’re a family restaurant that gets a good number of kids, you’ll need to put them out of easy reach too.  And if they’re out of easy reach, that makes tending to them harder.  I made this very mistake too, but unless you really -like- tending to plants yourself, you’ll probably wind up removing the plants after a few months of hassles.  (Fake ones get really dusty in high traffic areas too, as a free side tip)

    In my jurisdiction, the health code requires that we replace opened non-factory sealed containers between each seating.  Before that change, making sure each container is 50% full as part of the bus/table setup (and having a very visible counter where customers/employees can easily grab spares) took care of everything outside the 2% rule.

  12. Eh.

    This sounds more like your personal preferences than listening to what your customers actually want.

    I think it’s rare that a ‘3’ or ‘4’ group gets ahead of a 2-party (because it’s a larger table) – but is that really a huge factor in the dining experience for most customers? I’m not so sure. Maybe. Again a tiny slice of the customer experience, in my opinion.

    The biggest ‘experience’ factors probably vary a lot customer to customer. The key is — LISTENING to your customers and listening to feedback. Some customers really care about the table — they don’t want to be tucked in the back or put near the bathroom. Then again, these customers usually make themselves known.

    The biggest key is this in my opinion:

    1. If the restaurant owner GIVES A SHIT about Customer Experience and takes step towards it, he is already well on his way. Most owners simply don’t give a shit, especially in Europe.

    2. Proper and extensive training of staff. Good places don’t “overburden” waiters with 12+ tables each (which is why they never seem around or paying attention). This is a staffing/ cheapskate issue as well. How much do you value service. A properly trained waiter will also ‘check in’ every so often either visually or by swinging by (a bit more intrusive) every so often. I don’t think a “buzzer” is great – it would lead to more problems if there was more than one. Some Comedy clubs have a ‘light up’ table light that indicates service is required. This could work fine, but might come across as tacky.

    3. Wait times. Turning customers away would piss them off, end of story. I’m no restaurant expert, but you want to have a mix of reservations and walk-ins, so both customer bases are satisfied. Don’t go 80-100% reserved out tables … not everyone is Mr. Reservation and then no one will ever walk into your restaurant.

    The wait times at that point are simply a function of Demand vs. Restaurant Space. Simple. All you can do is attempt temporary space fixes (like outdoor seating, a bigger bar seating, etc) … and be EXTREMELY communicative and accurate with wait times (This is extremely simple giving average guest dining time and normal distributions — I deal with wait times all the time in my job, trust me, the average doesn’t change very much). If you know how many customers came in, your seating capacity, when they came in (all computerized) — you should be 90% accurate as to the wait time. If people KNOW the wait is accurate, they are less pissed. If it’s 45 minutes, then that’s what it is.

    I don’t think turning them away is a solution. If they think that sucks, they will leave. I would say if someone waits more than 15 minutes, maybe say ‘sorry for the wait’ and offer a free Cheesecake. That would be above and beyond most restaurants. If you restaurant becomes packed all the time though, it may be untenable or unnecessary.

    That or come up with creative ways to make the ‘wait’ enjoyable. Obviously most people offer sitting at the bar or high-tops. Maybe you have an artistic entrance way with interesting mini-exhibits. Maybe there’s a glass place where people can watch people toss Dough or some bullshit. Myriad ideas. But again, ask the customers what is good/ bad , not just your own personal bullshit.

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