10 Tips to Garner Guest Loyalty
Jack Sosnowski, owner of five restaurants in Madison, Wisc., and one, his newest, in Milwaukee, is just halfway through his 30s. And yet he’s an ardent and enthusiastic champion of old-school restaurant hospitality, the type of high-touch, people-first outreach that connects with guests, coddling them in ways that help turn first-time visitors into regulars.
“When I was young I travelled with my father on business trips,” Sosnowski recalls. “The old way of doing things sparked my interest. I knew from a young age what I wanted to do. And I was certain that strong hospitality and guest service would be part of it.”
Under the banner of Noble Chef Hospitality, Sosnowski’s concepts run from classic, high-end steakhouses—Rare in Madison and Milwaukee to laid-back piano bars, lodges and gastropubs. “It doesn’t matter how different they are, it’s the same approach,” he explains, likening it to politics. “We’re hands-on in the restaurants; it’s shaking hands and kissing babies, getting to know as many people as we can.”
Jerry Lasco, chief executive officer of Houston-based Lasco Enterprises agrees. “When you work the dining room and get to know guests, that’s the start of loyalty right there.”
Lasco’s restaurants, mostly in Texas but also in Colorado, include The Tasting Room Wine Café, Anejo, Max’s Wine Dive and Boiler House. With about a dozen locations over five separate brands, he aims to cross pollinate. “If we can hook our guests into strong loyalty with one brand, there’s a greater chance we’ll get them to all.”
Lasco and Sosnowski offer their tactics to earn and win the sought-after honor of guest loyalty.
Everyone loves to be recognized. By the second or third visit to a restaurant, someone on staff should be able to greet them by name and welcome them back. Extra points for using a software program to keep notes—table preferences, special dates, favorite wines; this type of information paves the way to seriously upping customer service, making the guest feel emotional affinity for the operation. At Lasco’s restaurants, it’s a quick process. “We try to recognize anyone who comes a second time and create that connection,” he says.
Provide managers with printed business cards and have them encourage guests to ask for them by name. “Here’s my card, just ask for me,” are magical words, says Lasco. Rare’s Sosnowski takes it even further; he attends a large dairy-industry trade show in Madison every year, introduces himself to exhibitors and shares a card. “It’s amazing how many of them come for dinner,” he says, adding that some have turned into repeats. “They’re from out of town and perhaps not familiar with Madison so they appreciate learning about a local steakhouse.”
Especially at the busiest times, it’s hard for managers to spend time in the dining room but it should be prioritized. “Table touches really are key,” says Lasco. “Managers stop by, introduce themselves, see how things are going. Guests appreciate the personal interaction.” Beyond that, it also helps to ensure that all is running smoothly. Says Sosnowski, “Guests like to see a working owner. It makes them feel like everything is in control.”
Focus on what guests want and what value proposition you offer. “It seems obvious but really approaching service from the guests’ point of view and then delivering makes a big impact,” Lasco notes.
Look for ways to make it easier for guests to patronize your restaurant. In congested areas, maybe it’s valet parking. If it’s a family-oriented operation, make sure kids’ appetites and needs are fully addressed. At Rare’s Milwaukee location, housed on the ground floor of an office building, Sosnowski added house accounts that are billed monthly. “From the start we knew we had to win that business and that helped.” He also has a town car that will run guests to nearby locations. “We’ll even pick up the Uber as a gesture of goodwill.”
Crack the social-media code, especially if you’re courting millennials. “It definitely helps to establish that demographic,” says Sosnowski, whose Madison restaurants are close to the University of Wisconsin campus. “They’re your future customer base and it’s a big thing for them to check in, look at Facebook, post photos.”
Solicit guest feedback either formally or informally and then act on it. Whether it’s via a face-to-face conversation, an online survey or a review, acknowledge the good and the bad. If something has gone awry, figure out a way to make it right, even if it’s after the fact.
Appreciate your employees and keep them seriously happy; their attitude will be felt by guests. Enable them to deliver the best service possible. “We aim for empathetic, friendly, knowledgeable hospitality,” says Lasco. “No one wants to hear about their server’s bad day.”
Consider whether a loyalty program is right for your operation but don’t be married to the idea that you must have one. Something as simple as a frequency card can be effective in certain settings, say a coffee shop or juice bar, while others might find that a points or cash back system works better. Lasco says he hasn’t yet figured out how to make one work for guests. “If we hook them with one of our brands, we can cross-promote the others without having a loyalty program.”
Deliver effortlessness to guests, ensuring that every aspect of their experience is free of hassles. Consumers have never been more knowledgeable about food and service or less accepting of anything that hovers around the level of so-so. And they have choices and alternatives to instantly lure them to something that might be better. “If you execute well on all levels, you’re more likely to earn loyalty,” says Lasco.