Restaurantville Monthly December 2011 : Page 4

EAT PAY LOVE 4 | Creating Customer Loyalty By Rebecca Ann Robinson THE REGULAR: the customer sitting in his or her booth/ stool/table (always the same), who continually chooses your establishment over all others. December 2011 RES TA URANT VILLE MONTHLY

Eat. Pay. Love

Rebecca Ann Robinson

THE REGULAR: the customer sitting in his or her booth/ stool/table (always the same), who continually chooses your establishment over all others.<br /> <br /> Every restaurant owner dreams of a house full of happy, loyal customers. Our favorite TV restaurants Monk’s Diner (Seinfeld), Arnold’s (Happy Days), and Cheers— all had their share of regulars week after week. What was their secret? Was it the food? The atmosphere? The people? Or some other factor that set them apart from the crowd and generated such loyal customers?<br /> <br /> ‘How do I develop and nurture a regular?’ may seem like an obvious question, but if it were easy, tables would always be full. Those in the trenches know that this is a crucial, difficult and elusive question to answer. Getting customers in and keeping them long-term is a continual challenge. The obvious answer is ‘good food and solid service.’ Everyone agrees on that, quality can’t be faked. An important distinction here is between a satisfied customer and a loyal customer. The task is how to turn the first into the second.<br /> <br /> This is where market share versus wallet share comes into play. You might have a big share of the market, or the number of people who buy from you. But wallet share delves deeper, addressing the loyalty of your market share. How many will only buy from you? How do you increase that number?<br /> <br /> F. P. Reichheld, author of Loyalty Rules! And an expert on customer loyalty says, “As a customer’s relationship with the company lengthens, profits rise. And not just by a little. Companies can boost profits by almost 100 percent by retaining just 5 percent more of their customers.” Similarly, the cost of attracting a new customer is anywhere from 5 to 10 times the cost of retaining a current customer.<br /> <br /> OWNER, KNOW THYSELF.<br /> <br /> Before you look at your customers and try to determine what makes them tick, first take a close look at yourself. Do you know who you are and have a firm grasp of what your concept is? Do you have a mission? Can you easily define what you’re doing?<br /> <br /> Everyone has seen ‘Bermuda triangle’ locations; restaurants that never seem to succeed, constantly changing their concept every few months in search of something that ‘sticks’. Or restaurants that seem to offer every type of food under the sun, hoping that something will appeal to their customers.<br /> <br /> Jenni Tran-Weaver and Scott Weaver, owners of Jenni’s Noodle House in Houston first opened their doors in 2001, closed, then opened again in 2007 and now have three locations. What lesson did they learn through that experience? “Stay true to your concept.” Jenni always knew that she wanted to serve food that she grew up eating and loved to cook. They opened their doors again and set out to please ‘one customer at a time’.<br /> <br /> Once you establish a core concept, mission and values for your business, then it’s time to learn everything you can about the people who walk through your door.<br /> <br /> The more information you can collect about your customers, the better, especially what they like or don’t like about their dining experience. There are scores Of ways to unearth customer demographics and feedback. Surveys and customer tracking can tell you almost anything—from table preferences to birthdays and dining habits<br /> <br /> However, one of the best ways to get to know your customers is one of the oldest; face to face interaction. Matthew Mabel, founder and president of Surrender, Inc., a hospitality and management-consulting firm based in Dallas talks about the importance of developing the lifetime customer. “The person in your restaurant spending $20 one evening is not just spending $20. That customer is potentially worth thousands over the years.” <br /> <br /> To really get to know your customers, Mabel encourages ‘management table touching’. Talk to customers, check in at tables to make sure things are running smoothly. He also suggests that managers get out to other restaurants in competitive markets.Matthew noted that the manager (whom he didn’t know) in a restaurant he dined in in West Texas recently visited his table twice during dinner. He was very impressed, introduced himself and offered his positive feedback.<br /> <br /> Leo Duran, who with his wife Frances, owns L&J Café in El Paso notes, “My wife and I are here all the time to welcome and visit with our customers and they appreciate that.”<br /> <br /> Darrin Straughan, president of James Coney Island, follows Mabel’s advice by donning a manager shirt every Sunday to bus and wait on tables so that he gets a chance to talk to customers. Customers are surprised and glad to see him on the floor. He laughs, “As Yogi Berra says, ‘you can observe a lot just by watching’.” <br /> <br /> RELATIONSHIP BUILDING <br /> <br /> Once you know who your customers are, you can start building relationships that have the potential to last a lifetime. The same rules apply in business as in interpersonal relationships, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated.’ “Create dialogue!” Jenni says. “Customers want and need to feel heard.”<br /> <br /> In Jenni and Scott’s case, customers can submit feedback through the Noodle House website and comments go straight to Jenni’s phone where she can answer wherever she is, and she answers each one personally.<br /> <br /> Next, examine your channels of communication. Opportunities for restaurants to communicate and dialogue with their guests have never been greater or more exciting.<br /> <br /> Are you using a multi-faceted approach? With so many communication outlets these days, one size doesn’t fit all. Jenni and scott see their younger crowd using almost exclusively text and Twitter. Other customers prefer check stuffers at the table or even the classic comment card.<br /> <br /> One of the single greatest aspects of social media is its immediacy. If used properly, customers can submit feedback with the click of a button and restaurant owners/managers have an opportunity to respond personally, directly and immediately<br /> <br /> For example, Johnny Vassallo of Mo’s in Houston has a QR code on table tents (easy to use, similar to a scanner code) that takes customers to a short survey they complete on their phone in exchange for a prize drawing.<br /> <br /> The same guidelines apply to social media as in face-to-face communication. Keep ‘dialogue’ in your mind as a mantra as you manage your social media. You are also managing relationships.<br /> <br /> There are barriers that can hinder our ability to communicate, online or face to face. One is apathy, which stems in part, from being stressed and tired. We all get busy particularly in the restaurant business where the daily grind tends to put people on auto- pilot.<br /> <br /> The extra bit of energy it takes to give a genuine smile or go out of the way to ask a customer how they are doing is invaluable. Continually remind everyone from owner to bussers that a positive, friendly attitude is contagious and customers will respond in turn.<br /> <br /> Johnny of Mo’s in Houston says, “The silent customer is the deadly customer.” If a customer doesn’t feel comfortable offering feedback, then the chance to build a relationship dissolves.<br /> <br /> Finally, it takes time to build relationships. Time builds trust, and trust breeds honesty. “Our main focus is making a connection with the customer,” says Alex Brennan of Brennan’s in Houston. “There are always places that customers can eat cheaper, closer to home, in a shorter time frame and more casually, yet people still choose Brennan’s. So there is something else beyond good food and solid service.” <br /> <br /> CONSISTENCY <br /> <br /> When a customer has a great experience, he or she develops expectations. Consistently delivering a quality product and experience goes a long way in building trust, strengthening relationships and gaining loyalty.<br /> <br /> ‘Mike’ an Austin resident who frequents his favorite diner every day, puts it this way, “I have a stressful job. When I’m overwhelmed I take a break and head over to the diner. They know my name. I know I’m going to be treated well, and I’m going to get the same great meal that I always get. I don’t have to think about it.” <br /> <br /> Bob Gillet of 24 Diner appreciates customers like Mike and works hard to maintain consistency in both food and service since they are open round the clock. “We have a lot of regulars like Mike who eat here once or even twice a day and we treat them like family.”<br /> <br /> Charles Clark (co-owner of Ibiza, Catalan, Brasserie 19 and Coppa in Houston) says that their goal is to get customers in two to three times per week, rather than being a ‘special occasion’ restaurant, so he avoids big surprises on his menus. “We have clients doing business here and they expect the same great dishes they have come to enjoy. We never want to spring something on them or have them be embarrassed in front of their cli-ents because they don’t know what something on the menu is.” <br /> <br /> James Coney Island in Houston has the unique perspective of being in business for 88 years. They have generations of fans and a cult-like following.<br /> <br /> According to Darrin, “We have to work hard to be mindful of consistency and customer expectations. Whether your brand is five years old or fifty, you have to stay focused on quality.” This includes service and training employees, “We have 21 locations. Standardized employee training is one of the ways we work to provide consistency in service.” <br /> <br /> LOYALTY PROGRAMS <br /> <br /> Once you have developed and nurtured regulars, be careful not to take them for granted. Keep momentum going by showing your appreciation.<br /> <br /> Loyalty programs are a great way to show appreciation and reward customers.Programs can be customized to fit most any situation and you can track them to measure results and weed out what isn’t working.<br /> <br /> Unfortunately, too many programs focus on up-selling customers. Make sure that you are offering something special or exclusive – something that only they will receive.<br /> <br /> Get creative. L&J Café doesn’t have an official loyalty program but Leo and Frances buy dinner each month for a different regular. “It’s spontaneous and unexpected which delights guests and makes them feel truly appreciated,” Leo explains. “The el-ement of surprise makes it even more special and people remember that.”<br /> <br /> HAPPY EMPLOYEES = HAPPY CUSTOMERS <br /> <br /> “There is nothing that can influence a customer experience as much as wait-staff,” says Johnny of Mo’s. He goes out of his way to hire people who are genuinely friendly, even when they might not be as experienced as he would like. “The other stuff you can teach.” <br /> <br /> Good wait-staff build custom- er relationships little by little. Calling customers by name, remembering preferences and anticipating needs of guests are all things that strengthen relationships. Bob of 24 Diner says they come to know what their regulars like. “We have a culture here where everyone helps everyone else learn about our customers and their preferences.”<br /> <br /> Customer relationship building takes communication on the part of management and staff. Does staff know how critical the first point of contact is? Do they hear it on a regular basis? Do they recognize the impact that a smile and a positive attitude can have on the customer experience?<br /> <br /> Alex of Brennan’s in Houston also points out that for him, it is important to keep turnover down in order to maintain customer/ waitstaff relationships. “We treat our employees very well. We pay them more.” It’s the notion of investment today for customer loyalty tomorrow.<br /> <br /> To reduce turnover and boost team morale, consider incentivizing staff through rewards. Performance-related compensation, preferential shifts and other perks make it clear to staff that they are appreciated.<br /> <br /> DOUGLAS ADAMS<br /> <br /> There is no set recipe for customer loyalty. As Jenni noted, there are so many variables; everything from atmosphere, to music, to food, to service. Yet with all successful restaurants and loyal customers, there is the common element of human connection and dialogue.<br /> <br /> Charles of Ibiza in Houston recounts a story about a waiter in his restaurant that accidentally spilled some wine on a guest’s suit coat. Manager and staff quickly got the stain out with soda water. However, a staff member noted the brand of the jacket, and pointed out that a nearby store carried the same brand. Charles and the manager ran to the store, bought the exact same jacket (over $400) and presented it to the guest along with his original jacket. Where do you think the man dines now?<br /> <br /> “Of course he was shocked and now he’s one of our best customers! His dinner was around $200 and the jacket was $400—but in the end, we gained a lifelong customer.” A small investment in the bigger picture.

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