You can blame the Food Network, celebrity chefs, food tourism or social media – they’ve all contributed to the restaurant revolution we are experiencing. It used to be that a restaurant’s reputation came down to the dishes they served (plus or minus some points for service). Now that dining out is an experience in and of itself, customer expectations have changed.

When choosing a restaurant, today’s diners  consider factors such as its trendiness, the uniqueness of its menu, how iconic it is, whether it will be recognizable by a social media audience, whether the interior design matches the desired mood, and notably, how Instagrammable the food is.

See if you can guess the results of this recent study. “30% of people aged 18-34 would avoid a restaurant if … ?” It received a poor hygiene rating? Had rude service? Served cage eggs? Nope. Nearly a third of people would avoid a restaurant if their Instagram presence was weak.

Moving beyond pretty pictures

Over the past few years, restaurants have noticeably been designing their plates for maximum impact on social media, but how many are responding to guests posting in real-time? Or making use of the feedback and PR opportunities provided through social media? These are increasingly important customer experience strategies that restaurants need to be leveraging in order to satisfy the high expectations placed on the dining experience.

Deloitte has identified five emerging expectations in customer experience, as related to restaurants: ‘engage me’, ‘empower me’, ‘hear me’, ‘delight me’ and ‘know me’. Customers want staff to speak to them in an authentic way, and make them feel excited about their experience. They want staff to understand any dietary restrictions and to empower them to customize their meal if desired. They want to be made to feel special with little surprise gestures, and they want to be recognized individually. Sounds like a lot to keep on top of? The report also outlines the ROI that restaurants investing in customer experience can expect, including return visits and increased check size. Notably, however, the report outlines the negative impacts of not investing in customer experience: nearly twice as many guests (73%) will tell their friends and family about a negative experience over a positive one.

Strategies to raise the customer experience at restaurants

The winning restaurants are the ones that take a 360 degree approach to designing their customer experience. At each stage of the customer journey, managers must ask, what are the tools or strategies available to my staff in order to surpass customer expectation? For example:

  • Engagement: Your customer began thinking and talking about your restaurant before they even booked, but at what point did you first engage them? Much of the conversation about your venue is happening on social media, but if you’re not listening you can’t influence it.
  • Empowerment: What information can you provide your customer prior to their arrival so that they have an appropriate level of expectation (eg. parking information, seating options, pre-set menus, special occasion offers, events on-site or nearby)? What choices do they have regarding customization of the menu and when is the choice communicated?
  • Listening: Part of creating an omni-channel experience means that information that’s conveyed to a brand online is carried across channels so that the necessary action can take place. Knowing the context of a customer’s visit is critical to making the right recommendations. Is the customer a tourist, on a mission to find the best ceviche in the city? Or, is the customer a regular who always orders the steak medium-rare?
  • Delight: While an ‘amuse-bouche’ can feel like a nice ‘bonus’, it’s not the same as offering something unexpected and that’s personalized based on what you know about your guest. In a time-constrained setting such as dinner service, this communication relies on real-time alerts delivered to a cross-functional team.
  • Customer Intelligence: Pre-arrival, a restaurant will usually only have the details of the customer who made the booking, however when free Wi-Fi is made available to diners, there is suddenly an opportunity to learn about everyone around the table – not just the name on the reservation. Information gathered from social media and Wi-Fi can be used to create rich social profiles.
The good news is that restaurants who are on social media and offering customer Wi-Fi, have access to the data needed to truly elevate the experience. However, data alone won’t make the difference, and this is where restaurants must ask themselves whether they are equipped with the staff and tools who can act upon it. It requires thoughtful planning and execution to get it right, but the reward for doing so can include a loyal customer base and social media fame, while the penalty for not trying could be obsolescence.