Achieving Restaurant Customer Loyalty

The definition of “loyalty” is pretty straightforward: “Unswerving in allegiance… faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution or product.”

Easily defined, yes, but not always easy to achieve when it comes to purchasing or customer service relationships. Sure, we expect loyalty from a spouse, from friends and even from employees, but can we expect loyalty from guests who frequent our restaurants? We say “Why Not?”

We turned to VSAG’s Dan Simons for some feedback regarding achieving (and keeping) guest loyalty. A natural choice, since building a successful restaurant and hotel consulting firm is all about cultivating relationships/trust and in turn loyalty.

According to Dan, the key to achieving loyalty is in “Building real relationships with guests. That is where the seed for loyalty is planted,” he says. “Loyalty is the outcome. The tactics are: Honesty, Hospitality and Caring for guests’ every need.”  We asked Dan to elaborate a bit more on what he meant. Below are the tactics on a deeper level of meaning.

Honesty. Having the ability to communicate honestly with guests, listen to their concerns (and complaints about your restaurant) and addressing them appropriately might be challenging at times to achieve, but it is necessary for success. You must train managers to be adept at listening, and to quickly remedy guest issues. Guests want to be heard and dealt with in a calm, straightforward manner.

For online guest feedback, we recommend employing a dedicated person to manage and respond to ALL guest feedback through various sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media, as well as through industry platforms like OpenTable, Yelp and Urban Spoon. Response times should be prompt and answers thorough. VSAG has found that the difference in replying quickly or waiting to respond to a guest can mean the difference in a return visit with a good recovery, or no future visits at all.

Hospitality. Hospitality is not just about being cordial and welcoming guests through the front door then ushering them to their table while making small talk.  Hospitality is also about making a true connection, in a way that engages guests and makes them feel like family. Connecting by interacting with a guest is essential, but utilizing social media to build upon that relationship is a powerful way to maintaining that relationship for the long term. Whether its creating an inviting/informative website complete with photos of guests enjoying your food or blogging about recipe inspiration/traditions – using fun, interesting (and concise) stories, photos and interactive media to draw guests in, can help make them feel part of your restaurant or brand family and valued as someone that frequents your establishment.

Caring for Guests’ Every Need. Be attentive. Be consistent. Be reliable. Not just with your service, but with your food and atmosphere. Building loyalty is seeded in proving to guests that they will be cared for (and about). They want the comfort of knowing that the same amazing meal and environment awaits them with each visit. These actions will be rewarded with return customers, and when they return, it’s imperative to return the appreciation with great food, service and an overall enjoyable experience.

VSAG has worked with restaurant and hospitality clients and created ‘showing you care’ moves that really work. For example, we found that keeping an annual list of your most loyal guests (with 20+ visits a year) and rewarding them with a personalized letter from the managing partners or owners, a dining card good for a meal on the house, and a small gift (i.e. a sample of honey from the restaurant’s apiary, a holiday ornament or cookies from the restaurant’s bakery) – has solidified relationships with the most loyal of guests. Also, noting these valued guests within the reservations system allows managers and servers to quickly recognize them (if they don’t already). Case in point: We worked closely with our client Founding Farmers, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., on devising a loyalty program, and in 2012, top loyal guests dined an average of 30 times a year! Though it is just 3 blocks from the White House and steps from many other tourist attractions, the restaurant has consistently seen an 18% guest return rate year after year!

In the end, whether your establishment is a cozy, local cafe, a bustling restaurant in a large city, a family friendly eatery within a country club setting or a large restaurant housed in an ultra chic hotel, all guests crave the same things: Honesty, Hospitality and Caring for they’re every need. Consistently offering these attributes will help build lasting relationships and brand loyalty over time.

(Photo: ‘Caring for Guests’ Every Need’ at its very best.)