What separates the good restaurants from the great ones? Most experts agree it all comes down to which restaurant can deliver the best guest experience.
Research by Walker underscores the “experience over everything” viewpoint. They predict that by 2020, the guest experience will overtake price and product as the primary brand value that customers seek.
So, what exactly goes into crafting the ideal customer experience…before, during, and after their visit? For answers, we turned to Jeremey Wells, CMO and Partner at Longitude Design in Springfield, Missouri. Jeremy is known in the restaurant and hospitality business as a “guest experience guru,” and he was happy to share his insights with us…
Buzztime) Why is it important to focus on the guest experience?
Jeremy) Why do we pay $5 for a hot dog at a baseball stadium, when we could get 16 hotdogs for the same price at Walmart?
Why do we pay $7 for a beer at a local pub, when we could get a 6-pack for the same price at the liquor store?
It’s the same hotdog but for some reason it tastes better at the baseball stadium. It’s the same beer, but we enjoy it more with our friends at the pub.
So, what’s the deal? Could it be that what we’re experiencing as we eat and drink is just as important as the quality of the food itself – maybe even more so?
If you ask most people why they visit one restaurant over another, they’d probably say it’s because of the good food. Maybe this is true, but maybe the food and the guest experience are more intertwined than we think.
In reality, there are thousands and thousands of restaurants and bars that have great food. And, if I’m being blunt, it’s really a default expectation – I wouldn’t call that a strong unique selling proposition.
For restaurants and bars, the guest experience is everything. Literally, everything. We live life through experiences. Experiences are so powerful that they can influence our mindset, our perceptions, our mood, and even make us who we are as an individual.
The guest experience must be important. The difficulty is that an experience is made up of so many touch-points that it’s easy to be overwhelmed or feel like we’ve missed something.
Buzztime) What does the guest experience entail at a bar or restaurant? What elements should owners pay attention to?
Jeremy) There are a plethora of ways that a guest experiences your business.
Is it difficult to find your website or menu online? Is your staff helpful when someone calls on the phone to ask a question? Is it easy to find parking near your restaurant? As they approach your restaurant, do they begin to anticipate a great experience? Does the food smell good? Is there a buzz or excitement in the air?
When they enter, are they greeted with a smile and seated promptly? Is the music too loud? Too quiet? Does the server notice them as a new customer or a regular, and make mention of that? Do they receive their food and drinks promptly? Is the meal itself outstanding? Is paying for the check an easy experience? As they leave, does someone notice and say “bye?”
Throughout all of these interactions, people are “experiencing” your restaurant…either good or bad. It’s your responsibility to make that guest experience wonderful – even if you’re faced with one of these 8 customer service challenges. It’s no doubt a big responsibility for you and your staff, but what’s the alternative?
Buzztime) What elements are often ignored or undervalued when assessing the guest experience?
Jeremy) If you own a restaurant or bar, you may believe that you’re in the restaurant industry, but you’re not. You’re not selling burgers and beers, you’re selling happiness.
I think the most undervalued aspect to a great guest experience is simply training your staff to be present. What does it mean to be present? It means setting aside your phone, putting your thoughts to the wayside, and focusing on the moment with each guest.
When you can be present, you’ll notice details or nuances that you otherwise would have missed. Each detail is an opportunity for you to deliver an amazing, memorable guest experience.
You’ll see that someone may be having a tough day, you’ll overhear that a couple is celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, you’ll see that someone is looking around anxiously because they’re on a first date and waiting for their date to arrive.
When you pick up on small details about a guest, you’re able to adjust how you serve them and give them a very custom-tailored guest experience.
Most importantly, they’ll feel seen. They’ll know you care. These are basic human needs, and if you can make someone feel and experience these things at your restaurant, then of course they’ll want to return for another positive guest experience.
Buzztime) Can you explain why it’s important to carry the guest experience through 3 ‘levels’ – before, during, after?
Jeremy) A lot of restaurant and bar owners think very one-dimensionally about a guest experience. But in reality, people are experiencing your brand outside of the four walls of your restaurant.
They experience it when they visit your website. They experience it when they read about the guest experiences that others have had. They experience it as they drive by and see your sign and building.
After they leave your restaurant or bar, they may (or may not) have a guest experience with your brand through the follow-ups, rewards, and offers of your restaurant loyalty program that entice them back.
The in-restaurant guest experience is only one, albeit very important, piece to the puzzle.
Buzztime) Do you have an example of a memorable, well-executed guest experience?
Jeremy) One way to create a pleasant and memorable guest experience is to make your customers feel known.
It’s this sustainable, “people-first” approach, in which you make people feel valued, seen, and as if you’re on their side.
Many restaurants have implemented a lot of different tactics to accomplish this.
One approach that many restaurants are using now is training their staff to take detailed notes in their POS system about each guest. What’s their favorite dish? What’s their favorite drink? Do they have any allergies? Do they like their burger well done or rare? What’d you talk about last time they were in your restaurant? A great guest experience is one that is personalized to each person.
In his book, “Setting the Table,” famous restaurateur Danny Meyers said, “Always be collecting the dots, so you can always be connecting the dots.”
In Boston, there’s a restaurant called Eastern Standard that has implemented this type of relationship-focused guest experience. They’ve coined it “layered guest relations.” If you’re intentional and diligent about making your guest experience outstanding, your restaurant becomes their “home away from home.”
Buzztime) How does branding play into the guest experience?
Jeremey) If you define “branding” how we define it at Longitude° then you’ll understand that your brand is more than just a logo or pretty designs.
Your brand is your reputation – it’s how people perceive you. Your reputation (or brand) is the sum of how you look, what you say, and what you do. If any of these aren’t in alignment, then it can cause problems for you. At best, you’ll create a confusing guest experience, and at worst you’ll lose customers.
To create consistently great guest experiences, a well-defined brand is almost necessary. A brand strategy will help you define who you are, why your restaurant deserves to exist, what makes your restaurant special and unique, and how you can relate better to your customers. When you’re confident and comfortable with who you are, it’s easier to make others feel the same way.
All that to say, it’s very important that your visual brand identity (how many people would define “branding”) is on-point, because whether we like it or not, people will judge a book by its cover. If you offer an extraordinary guest experience, you need to look the part…
How many times have you driven by a restaurant and thought to yourself, “Oh that place looks good!” That’s because a name, logo, and colors can make a person feel a certain way. After all, humans are visual creatures.
Buzztime) Can you measure the value of a great guest experience?
Jeremy) Totally! It’s very easy to measure the value of your guest experience.
You can ask for feedback directly from your customers, track customer loyalty/retention, measure ticket times, look for increases in check averages, and of course keep an eye on your online reviews.
If you’re intentional and consistent with serving up a memorable guest experience, then 5-star reviews will be a regular thing, your customer loyalty numbers will skyrocket, and it can certainly affect your bottom line.
Buzztime) How can you get your team on board with delivering a cohesive experience?
Jeremy) I think a great way to get your team onboard with valuing the guest experience is to help them see how it directly benefits them.
When your establishment provides a wonderful guest experience the guests are enjoying themselves more, maybe ordering more food and drinks, and will likely tip more. This means that if your employees can really put effort into improving the guest experience, they’re bank accounts will directly benefit.
There’s also something altruistic about wanting to serve others and make them happy. For people who have a natural leaning toward hospitality, this is an easy motivation. But that’s not the case for all people.
One piece of advice is to hire naturally hospitable people. It’s really difficult to train an employee to be kind, considerate, proactive, caring, and compassionate. This is why you should look for these types of traits in people before you hire them.
Buzztime) For help in reinventing or improving the guest experience, what are some resources for bars and restaurants?
Jeremy Wells) A must-read is “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer.
There’s a popular podcast by Eric Cacciatore called, “Restaurant Unstoppable” that always has very interesting interviews with owners and operators. And of course, we have a number of resources and articles at Longitude Branding.