Many restaurants know the score. Miss a customer’s call to book a table for the evening and he might just dial the next number on his list and spend his money elsewhere.
For full-service restaurants, the best service is expected. Certainly, to create a great evening for guests, the first interaction with the customer has to be perfect.
While services such as Open Table help restaurants manage their reservations, for many customers, a phone call is still the primary way they choose to book a table for that special night out.
The challenge then becomes to decide how customer calls are taken. Some still rely on a single phone line to receive calls from customers, even during peak hours. The risk here is that if a staff member is called away, or is busy showing customers to a table, calls can go unanswered and then forgotten.
The lost business opportunity is clear, and some restaurant owners are now realizing how easy the problem can be rectified.
Instead of running messy phone lines all over or installing a PBX exchange that is expensive to set up and difficult to maintain, they are looking to alternatives that combine mobile apps and Internet-based phone services. With the flexibility to route calls and track missed calls, these services are making a difference in the critical first impression that customers get when they call in.
For example, staff can carry their own mobile devices and have the calls routed to them even when they are away from the fixed line phone. This lets them answer a call even while on the move in the restaurant.
Of course, the most important customer is the one in front of them. In times when your team cannot answer a call, an automated message could assure a customer he would get a call back in a brief moment.
When a staff member is available, he or she can simply click on a “call back” button to get back to the customer—or retrieve a voicemail—right from a mobile app.
Cloud-based phone systems are also perfect for restaurants with multiple locations that still want to use a single number in their marketing materials. For instance, a customer could press “1” for the downtown restaurants and “2” for suburban locations. Most PBX systems do not do this easily.
The good news is such systems do not require a hefty upfront investment. Like many Internet-based services, they come in a “pay-as-you-use” model. That means a monthly subscription cost and typically very low—or even zero—setup cost.
Part of this change to digitize how phone calls are handled also helps restaurants understand customers better. Without having to deploy an entire call center, the call statistics on such internet-based phone systems are more easily captured and analyzed.
At what times do the most people call, for example? Do people call from their mobile phones—on the go—or from fixed-line phones at home or in the office? Such data give an idea of what customers restaurants deal with, beyond the close personal relationships that servers and managers have with regular patrons.
Besides phones, restaurants have to start blending the data they receive over the Internet as well. For starters, who are the people who e-mail to make a reservation? What are people saying about the restaurant on Facebook and Twitter?
This multi-channel view of customer data is becoming increasingly important, as the shift towards new communications channels gathers pace with young customers.
Those born after 1990 prefer to connect via electronic messaging, social media, and smartphone applications rather than calling in, according to a Dimension Data report that surveyed more than 800 participants across 11 industry sectors in 79 countries.
Even with Generation X customers, the preference gaps separating the phone, messaging, and social media are narrowing, the study found. As smartphones become more common, the importance of e-mail and social media over voice will become even clearer. Their impact on business outcomes will continue to grow.
In a separate consumer survey in 2011 by research firm Harris Interactive, 79 percent of those who shared complaints about poor customer experience online had their complaints ignored. In the United States, 89 percent of consumers took their business elsewhere due to a poor customer experience.
The good news is that technology is a great equalizer. Just like how cloud-based or Internet technology has made it possible for small businesses to run sophisticated accounting tools or storefronts that cater to thousands at any time, it is transforming how they interact with customers.
In the future, restaurants will be able to create a great first impression by never missing a call. They will also gather 360-degree business intelligence without hefty upfront investments in infrastructure. A deeper understanding of customers will differentiate a great restaurant from a merely good one.
The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.