6 Steps to Turning First-Time Guests Into Lifelong Regulars


How your staff can make the difference between a one-time guest and a loyal follower.

6 Steps to Turning First-Time Guests Into Lifelong Regulars

The challenge facing many restaurant operators is that new customers are needed to stay profitable, but first-time guests often come at a loss when you factor in marketing costs. This is compounded when you factor acquisition and operational costs into the equation. This means restaurants need repeat visits to stay profitable, but how?

Tim Kirkland, CEO of Renegade Hospitality group and an expert on customer conversion, says the answer is all in the training.

“A first-time customer is a first date, and they are making major judgments on minor things,” Kirkland says. “These are things that our regulars don’t even notice anymore.”

The biggest judgment is in whether the basics are right, such as food arriving at the table at the right time and temperature, the restaurant must be clean, and the parking lot must be safe.

But that is the minimum to get customers to consider visiting again. To become a regular choice, a restaurant must go above the basics. These simple steps explain how:

Step 1: Talk to the Guest

The best way to ensure excellent service for first-time customers is to ask them if they have been to the restaurant before.

“Restaurateurs can train hostesses to instead of grabbing three menus and racing you to a table, they just walk with customers and ask, ‘Have you ever been here before?’ “ Kirkland says. “Ask the question, and then have a conversation. For example, explain what the restaurant is famous for and where the bathrooms are—things that first time customers need to know.”

Step 2: Communicate to the Team

While many restaurants have the host ask customers questions when they arrive, they often fail in communicating that message to the team.

“Nine times out of 10, even in good restaurants where the hostess asks this question, the server will come up to the customer and ask the same question … which communicates that we don’t care about the answer,” Kirkland says.

Instead of having servers ask again, the host should communicate this message to the whole team through software, or by something as subtle as dropping an extra coaster at the end of the table so that the server knows to take extra time with the table.

Step 3: Get the Manager Involved

While it’s important for servers and hostesses to make a good impression, it’s equally important to have the manager get involved to double check the experience. Managers can flag first-time guest orders as high priority in software or in the kitchen to ensure food comes out at the right time and temperatures, and they should go out of their way to speak with that table.

“The manager should go to that table and talk about the restaurant just like you would on the first date,” Kirkland says. “Sell yourself, your past, your hopes and aspirations.”

Step 4: Use Names

Beyond this first-time experience, servers should use customer names to make a stronger connection.

“We did some research and interviewed people and asked that all things being equal, such as price, quality of the food, and so on, what’s the tipping point?” Kirkland says. “Almost everyone says I know somebody who works there or they know me.”

By using customer names, it is easier to give guests the impression that a specific restaurant is somewhere they are known.

Step 5: Give Them a Designated Server

Capitalizing on this personal connection, restaurants should go so far as to give guests designated servers they can request on each visit.

“You have to make an impact that says ‘I am your server here, and when you come in the door you should ask for me because I’m going to give you special service because you’re so important,’ ” Kirkland says.

He recommends that instead of dropping a check and telling customers which copy is theirs, servers should write their names on the checks and mention that they should ask for the same server the next time they come in.

“If I have a designated special server at a restaurant, chances are far more likely that I’m going to choose that restaurant because my confidence is higher on the quality service,” Kirkland says.

The impact of knowing someone at a restaurant is also increased if the person the guest knows is the owner or manager, Kirkland notes.

Step 6: Introduce Them to Other Regulars

The last step is to turn regulars into a community by introducing them to other regulars.

“When you get to the top level of engagement, you’ve created community, which is not just knowing somebody that works there, it’s knowing other people that go there,” says Kirkland. “Norm didn’t go to Cheers because they had two-for-$1 beers. He went first of all because they say his name when he walks in the door, and second, because he knew that Cliff would be there everyday.”

Though converting costly, first-time customers can be challenging, making the extra effort to make guests feel valued can go a long way and should be every operator’s top priority.

“We exist to convert first time guests into lifelong loyal regulars because they are the most expensive thing in the restaurant,” Kirkland says.

By Peggy Carouthers