Some restaurants got in the habit of thinking they were more important than the guest.

All things being equal, people prefer to do business with people they like. All things being not so equal, people still prefer to do business with people they like.”— Sales trainer/author of The Sales Bible, Jeffrey Gitomer,

It’s the oldest business advice in history. It’s plain, common sense. Yet restaurants seemed to have forgotten: people do business with people they like.

Customer Appreciation Marketing is a new term we’re using to describe an old solution. This isn’t a trick or the latest marketing silver bullet … but for the upcoming new era, it is what’s needed. 

In San Francisco, a food lover used to feel lucky to get certain reservations within a month of his or her desired date, express gratitude to have waited in line only for 30 minutes for a coveted loaf of country sourdough, or brag that the host at “Che Fancy” led them to a table after only an hour of lingering around the host stand. Those everyday occurrences now seem like a lifetime ago. 

Restaurants got in the habit of thinking they were more important than the customer. The media made stars of chefs and restaurateurs, and many believed the press. The feeling that customers were lucky to dine with them and that the customer flow would never end was so commonplace, most of the industry didn’t recognize just how inverted that attitude was. 

But now, every single one of those coveted restaurants, bakeries, reservations, and celebrity chefs wishes it let customers know how much they appreciated their business. It’s time for restaurants to start acting like they care about their customers again.

Remember when a restaurant owner used to stroll from table to table, checking in on the guests? That’s long gone for reasons outlined above, and Coronavirus has put nails in its coffin. So how in this era of limited contact and engagement do you let your customers again know you appreciate them? After all, it’s hard for them to connect with your smiling server when that smile is hidden behind a mask. Furthermore, their only interaction with your restaurant could be through a DoorDash driver. One great way is by responding to their reviews. 

Every restaurant can show it cares and appreciates its customers through review responses. Not everyone has a robust email list or POS marketing tool to use for customer outreach, but every restaurant has reviews. And reviewers are not nefarious villains looking to damage your reputation. They are customers.

Consider if you were standing at your door and a customer left your restaurant telling you what a great meal he or she had, you’d certainly thank them for their visit and compliments. If someone wanted to give you feedback on a dish or tell you their experience wasn’t ideal, you’d want to listen and discuss solutions with them. Yet that’s exactly what people are doing by leaving online reviews, and most restaurants don’t respond. The right responses turn a friendly reviewer into a relationship and an unfriendly reviewer into an opportunity.

On positive reviews, thank them and ask them to introduce themselves next time they visit so you can “thank them in person” or “suggest some additional dishes you know they’ll enjoy.” Customers love the notion of getting VIP treatment. On negative reviews, thank them for their visit and feedback, address their issue with interest, not defensiveness, and again, ask them to introduce themselves on their next visit so you can make sure everything goes perfectly. You can see how this puts the customer at the center of importance.

For our new clients who haven’t been answering reviews we like to reach back to old reviewers and send responses that show you paid attention to their comments and note something which might be of interest to the customer. “Since you said you are such a fried chicken lover we thought you might like our new carry out Fried Chicken Family Dinner to go. Hopefully we’ll see you back soon and you can conveniently use this link to order online until our dining room opens again.”

On poor reviews you avoided, go back and apologize for the delayed response, thank them for their visit, address their concerns and suggest some other items “you are certain they will love.” 

So respond to their reviews. Make them feel heard. Make them feel appreciated. 

In a classic 2013 Forbes article, entrepreneur and angel investor Amy Rees Anderson quoted an anonymous adage: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” She went on to say the most powerful tool you have in creating success is to appreciate other people.

Never has there been a better time to start.

Tom James is the founder of San Francisco-based Overall Reviews. His agency exclusively handles review response and review analytics for restaurants nationwide.

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