As we return to in-person dining across the country, restaurants are facing yet another challenge: delivering an exceptional customer experience (CX) for guests who come with high expectations after more than a year stuck at home. Not only is there a ripe opportunity to attract formerly takeout-only customers for in-person dining, but an opportunity to enhance customer experience for all customers and differentiate from the competition.
The entire dining experience has changed in the wake of the pandemic. Even with some restaurants closing their doors, there’s more competition than ever before. People have more choices at their disposal, not only about the food but also the ambiance and end-to-end dining experience. It used to be that restaurateurs could compete on the quality of their food, but with consumers having been deprived for so long, focusing on food alone would be a mistake. Consumers expect more in terms of atmosphere, service and memorable experiences.
The reality is that foot traffic is no longer a primary business driver. Every town has different restrictions–from limited options like parking lot cabanas for outdoor-only dining to full, open indoor dining–and many people have varying degrees of comfort dining out. They want to know what to expect before they arrive. That means the digital experience is of the utmost importance as more consumers are accustomed to researching online, reading reviews and turning to social media for what’s new and hot in their area.
All of that means restaurants must adapt to this new hybrid model to meet customer expectations for both in-person and digital experiences simultaneously—and do it all on razor-thin margins, while also dealing with staff shortages. Here are some strategies.
Beef Up Your Online Presence
Customers start their restaurant search online, so make sure what they see is representative of the experience you offer. Invest in your website with clear menus, ample dining room and food photos and include online ordering or online reservation options to serve both sets of customers. Create and/or cultivate your social media presence as well.
Use Facebook, Instagram and/or TikTok to share your unique offerings, daily specials and other events and to interact with customers. Be vigilant and address any negative feedback within 24 hours to head off reputation issues. This ensures future customers will see that you really care about customers and take a proactive approach to addressing any issues.
Build Social Proof
Diners want confirmation from their peers that you offer a good experience before they commit, and many want to be seen as influencers by their peers. Foster social proof by encouraging customers to share their experiences on social media by incentivizing them with discounts and creating hashtags.
For example, run a contest to reward those who share the best food picture on their social channels and offer them a special reward. It proves your value and cultivates their status—a win-win. And even when the inevitable negative comment comes in, this is a great opportunity to convert complainers into champions by the way you handle the situation, and when it’s in full view of your social following, the effect is amplified.
Keep it Fresh
You’re probably already running daily or weekly specials—make sure those are widely communicated to your audience by posting them on your social channels. Deploy email marketing to build a subscriber list and send news of special features and special events on a regular cadence.
For example, one local restaurant in my area runs a week-long Maine lobster event in the summer. I really look forward to those emails! But recognizing that everyone can’t make it there during that week, they’ve extended it into a monthlong theme so that everyone can make it in.
Personalize the Experience
One of the best ways to engage guests is to customize the experience uniquely for them. Start by asking both dine-in and take-out customers to sign up for your email newsletter (include a QR code on your receipts, menus or table tents to make this easy). After the first welcome email, ask them to share their birthdate for a special treat. Next, ask for their anniversary.
Turn it into a drip-style campaign. By soliciting new information with each outreach, you not only build a richer, more detailed profile, but also have multiple opportunities to engage them. If you ask for everything all at once, that’s it. Now you can leverage that information to deliver customized messages to draw them in and keep the engagement going.
Use Multiple Channels
I often get asked what the best digital channel is for restaurant marketing. And the answer is always: “whichever one your target audience prefers.” I don’t mean to be coy, but it’s the truth. There is no one right channel, and the best strategy is to first, ask your customers which they prefer. Start by getting them signed up for your email and following you on social and then ask them about any additional preferences. Don’t forget about SMS, Messenger and WhatsApp, too.
Ask for Feedback
One of the best ways to stay engaged with your customers—and to make them feel like their experience really matters—is to ask them for feedback. Send them a survey via email or encourage servers to promote the survey to in-person and include QR code-based surveys for the take-out customers. Incentivize responses with discounts or special offers. This is also a great way to be proactive about negative feedback. If you ask customers specifically about their experience and respond promptly with a mitigating or corrective response, they’ll be less likely to take to social media to complain.
By implementing an automated solution, you can set up triggers and rules to automatically send the right message to the right person at the right time—or to all the customers all at once. It’s your choice. For example, the system can be configured to automatically send a survey to the email address or SMS (depending on customer preference) after someone has visited the restaurant or to request the anniversary date after they’ve provided their birthday.
You can invest a few hours in setup just once a month and the system does the rest, only escalating issues for manual handling (like negative reviews) when needed. And if you’re feeling unsure, the best solutions are backed by on-demand support from a real, live human to help you get started, launch your first campaign and navigate any issues.
While it might seem overwhelming to beef up your digital presence and outreach tactics, the reality is it’s a necessity to compete in today’s market. People want to support their local restaurants—they want to hear from you—so that vested interest gives you a little more freedom for frequent contact than they would tolerate from a corporate entity. But they can’t support you if they don’t know about you.