6 Tips for amazing customer service in restaurants

by John Jones | Oct 03, 2022

British customer service is something of an enigma, isn't it? One the one hand we are a nation obsessed with politeness and our "no, after you" culture is puzzling to many other nations. Indeed, it is quite common for Brits to apologise when someone steps on their foot in the street, rather than the other way around. Americans find this attitude particularly baffling. Likewise, we're very polite about queuing at, say, a bank: if two cashier windows are open, Brits will politely and quietly form one line which then splits at the front to whichever window is open. There's no queue hopping, jostling or elbowing-in of the type seen in, say, Italy or Greece.

So for a nation of polite people, it may come as some surprise to learn that according to the results of a survey carried out by Standout CV, July 2022 saw Britain face the highest number of customer complaints since records began in 2008. Interestingly the area with the lowest level of customer satisfaction was the City of London, followed by London as a whole. It would seem that politeness doesn't quite go to the heart of our culture - or our country - after all.

To be fair, all businesses including within hospitality have had a pretty tough time recently, with a pandemic, skills shortages and soaring prices being an understandable cause for them being slightly fed up - and who can blame them?

But as the name suggests, hospitality is about being hospitable so it is time for the guilty parties to take a deep breath, spray on their best smiles and get back to providing fantastic customer service.

Here are six principles, techniques and tactics which can form the fabric of any restaurant's customer service.

1. The engaged tone

We think there's nothing worse than front of house staff who are clearly disinterested in the customers. At the very least they should appear interested. Service staff are always the first interaction customers have in a restarant so it is vital that individuals and teams are reminded of the essential part they play in upholding the business's brand values and that - frankly - if they can't be engaging then they shouldn't be in a front of house role.

What do we mean by "engaging"? It's about being interested and making the customer feel special. It's about asking questions and listening to stories. To embed a base-level of engagement, perhaps a good starting point is to give staff a list of engaging conversation topics and ask them to adopt two or three in every customer interaction. These could be as simple as "where are you from?", "have you been here before?", "what do you think of <name of city/town/village>?".

2. Flexibility

Some years ago, when your FT blogger was running a small hotel, restaurant & conference centre, he had on his staff an ex-crusie ship F&B manager who was the epitome of flexible (and fantastic) customer service. One of his favourite techniques was never to say "no" to something but to say "we can't do that, but we can do this". Isn't that so much better than "computer says no"?

Customers are not robots and rarely think in binary/yes/no ways; they need some degree of flexibility from the restaurant. They want to feel that their hosts cared enough to make changes to the normal formula, and all just for them. It could be changes to dishes or orders, different portion sizes, seating arrangements or any number of the things which act as the catalyst for customers to re-book and tell all their friends.

Even better, training staff to actively promote flexibility right when customers walk through the door will take the dining experience to another level. Simply asking if customers have any preferences or outlining their options from the get-go will pay dividends.

3. Responsiveness

Of course, all of the above will come to nothing and potentially create a very negative experience if what's been promised is not delivered. There's really no point in offering an engaged and flexible approach if nothing promised gets implemented. Staff need to follow-through on their dialogues and make sure that customers get what's been offered, because without this all of the engagement is simply small talk.

Staff need to be empowered to be flexible, know the parameters in which they can offer it and have some kind of mechanism to ensure that don't simply forget in the heat of the moment.

4. Uniqueness

Guests want a memorable dining experience and one which is memorable for the right reasons. One way to do this is to think laterally and outside the box to deliver an experience which customers won't find elsewhere.

It doesn't have to be a gimmick, but can be a range of little touches. What we're looking for here is for the diner to say afterwards "you know, the way they did x was really lovely". The x factor could be a range of touches which dovetail with the restaurant's brand, from table accoutrements to décor to service techniques. For competitive advantage, uniqueness can be king.

5. The extra Mile

Thinking again of memorable experiences, we want customers to feel that they went the extra mile to make their reservation special. The key here is twofold: first, look for opportunities to provide high value but low effort touches based on the diners' themselves; secondly, use what is known about the guests already to provide a wow factor.

Your FT blogger was in a restaurant recently when a couple with a small child walked in. After they were seated, the waiter brought the adults their drinks order together with pens and paper for the child, with the words "would you like to draw me a nice picture?". The parents and the child were absolutely thrilled.

If the right systems are in place, it is easy to record customer behaviours and preferences and store them safely for next time. The best restaurant management software systems have deep abilities to store customer data, but of course they are only as good as the information which goes in. By remembering to record a diner's preferences such as, for example, food intolerances, seating preferences or favourite tipple, these things can be proactively offered before the customer asks for them on their next visit.

Don’t wait for guests to make requests; instead, do your best to anticipate what they might need and provide it without being asked.

6. Honesty

Finally, honesty is key even during a crisis. Customers are never going to be happy if their order is going to be late, or a certain dish isn't available, or their favourite table has been given to a different diner (although this should never happen with a decent reservations system in place). As sure as eggs are eggs, however, things will get a whole lot worse if staff try to bluff their way through or hide the truth. Customers much prefer honesty, period.

Wrapping up

The UK is at heart a deeply polite and hospitable nation, and nine more so than in the restaurant sector. Recent tough times have taken their toll, and resulted in the delivery of a flat, disinterested and inflexible attitude to customer service (we get it). 
But now is the time to go back to basics and capitalise on what feel-good factor there is, by upping the ante and concentrating on providing first class customer experiences. 

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