Tackling the Labor Shortage with Virtual Customer Queuing

As restaurants continue to deal with the staffing shortages affecting the entire industry, they inevitably look for ways to improve the employee experience. Measures such as better pay, attractive benefits, and flexible scheduling may attract more workers, but they aren’t quite solving the overall labor challenge.

Restaurants that can’t find the workers they need must figure out how to make the most of the staff they already have. That’s also not so easy; there’s only so much efficiency you can squeeze out of your operations.

Surprisingly, enhancing the customer experience can go a long way toward alleviating staffing challenges. Virtual queuing offers an opportunity to impress and delight customers while improving the employee experience and increasing your restaurant’s efficiency.

What Is Virtual Queuing?

When a restaurant is crowded and more customers arrive than there are tables and/or staff to accommodate them, people will be forced to wait their turn for service. Likely, they’ll give their names to a host and wait to be called. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—when you have enough staff to handle the crowd and an efficient plan to get those waiting customers seated and served in a reasonable amount of time, you can call it a successful day.

However, waiting isn’t always a good experience for customers. Trying to find a place to sit in the lobby, wondering why that party got seated before you, worrying you won’t hear your name called—all this and more causes stress for customers. The longer the wait, the more stress they feel. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this stress; it takes just one cough from one unmasked person to make other patrons wonder, “Is this worth it?”

Virtual queuing streamlines the process by allowing customers to check in on their phones, either through a QR code or text message or, if needed, with the help of a host. They’ll receive updates on their smartphones on how long their wait is and when their table is close to being ready.

More importantly, customers in the virtual queue can leave the restaurant and have a more concrete idea of when they should return. In this digital lasso, they can go for a stroll, visit nearby stores, get a drink at the bar, or anything else besides waiting in a cramped lobby.

Virtual Queuing Is Not a Buzzer System …

Some restaurants already use an electronic queuing technology: a buzzer system in which customers check in with the host, receive a pager, and are buzzed when their table is ready. Although the strategy does have its advantages over a host yelling to the crowd, “Smith, party of three!” it is not virtual queuing.

For starters, most pagers come with only a limited range that can be hampered by several factors, including the architecture of the building and the battery charge in the pager itself. People might gain a little freedom to step outside, but they won’t be able to go far, and if the wait is taking a while, customers might wonder if the pager is working, come back inside, and ask the host what’s taking so long.

That shortcoming brings up a larger deficiency of buzzers: They can’t deliver an accurate wait time to customers. Virtual queuing not only estimates how long customers will wait but also sends updated estimates to their phones. People aren’t left guessing when to return, and they aren’t bugging hosts about when they might be seated.

Of course, you don’t want to discourage communication. Virtual queuing systems allow for interactions so that customers can make requests (e.g., adding the number of people to the table, asking for a high chair or a wheelchair-accessible table, and so on) from the application. Staff can ask questions of the waiting customers or send quick messages as needed.

The system can also send promotions to customers while they wait. Promotions could be as simple as notifications about a new menu item or special holiday hours, or they can be tied to the customer’s wait itself. For example, if a wait goes unexpectedly long, the rules engine of the platform can automatically send a notification apologizing for the delay and offering a free appetizer once the party is finally seated.

Finally, buzzer systems always come with a risk of mechanical failure or lost pagers. An angry customer who gives up on waiting might steal, throw out, or destroy the pager. Most virtual queuing systems are SaaS platforms, which require no extra hardware on the front end or in customers’ hands.

Boosting Efficiency

Managing a crowded lobby of customers waiting to be seated requires plenty of effort from your staff. Hosts must deal with people giving their names to get on the waitlist, people asking and re-asking how long the wait is, and people who might not hear their names called immediately—all while maintaining the flow of customers to tables.

Virtual queuing automates much of this process so that employees can focus on getting people seated as efficiently as possible. Distractions are kept to a minimum because customers get the info they need on their smartphones. Employees already have key information, so when a party is seated, its table and any special requests are ready. With staffing already tight, if you can devote fewer employees to the lobby and get the same—if not better—results, you’re achieving more with less. Even just a few minutes saved during each customer interaction can add up to significant time and manpower over the course of the day.

In addition to immediate management needs, virtual queuing increases efficiency by gathering important data. The system can report average wait times, what days and times are consistently the busiest, how long customers wait before they abandon the queue and go someplace else, which special requests you receive most often, and more. This intel is great for planning staffing needs, including how many employees are needed per shift, how many more might need to be hired, and what training they should receive.

Enhancing the Employee Experience

No employee likes feeling overwhelmed in their job, and managing a throng of customers waiting to be seated often is overwhelming. Virtual queuing makes life easier for hosts who can let the system handle most of the process, from checking in customers to letting those customers know their table is ready. Employees won’t necessarily have less work, but they can make better use of their time and feel empowered—which benefits their well-being as well as the entire operation.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the employee experience in the restaurant industry. Customers are chippier, and employees are less likely to stay with a job in which the people they’re serving are constantly disrespectful. Prioritizing the customer experience with virtual queuing inevitably trickles down to the employee. Virtual queuing systems can:

  • Allow customers to wait on their own terms

  • Keep customers informed

  • Send customers with an apology if they leave the queue

  • Inform a manager if a recently seated party waited a long time so the manager can thank them for their patience

  • Invite customers to take a survey about their dining experience

These capabilities show customers that you value their well-being. And when customers feel valued, they generally treat the people serving them with more respect. Respected employees don’t dread coming to work every day. When facing a staffing shortage, that can make all the difference in retaining and developing your best workers.