Restaurateurs – Don’t get mad – get even

No-shows are the bane of restaurateurs’ lives, period. Our hearts bled for the industry participants of a recent BBC radio phone-in on which restaurateurs described their struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic, let alone deal with customers who just don’t bother to turn up. No-shows are financially damaging, unfair, and put jobs at risk.

The show featured various restaurant owners and celebrity chefs understandably venting their anger at selfish no-show customers. Some told how they telephone each no-show to ban them for life; others explained how their no-shows receive pretty strong emails in the same vane.

The anger heard on that program was absolutely understandable, heart-felt and moving. But there must be other ways to put things right. There have always been no-shows, period, and ultimately restaurateurs need customers to return. Somehow, battling with them just doesn’t feel in the spirit of hospitality and could create a culture of prospective diners being just too scared to book at all.

We have to understand that customers are scared. Just like the rest of us, they are living in uncertain times and their behaviours have changed. Applying the old rules to new norms just won’t work, so we have to show empathy while developing new tactics to mitigate what is certainly a huge risk for restaurateurs
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Give them a reason to return – don’t bash them

Instead of sending finger-wagging emails or making angry calls to no-shows, wouldn’t it be better if restaurant owners left the door open for those customers’ future revenue and gave them a reason to return? That angry phone call from the owner/manager could so easily be pitched in a different way. “We were worried about you”. “Are you ok? We had your table ready but when you didn’t show we were concerned”.

Doesn’t that fairly and squarely tell the customer that the restaurant knows they didn’t show, but in a much more positive way? It creates “no-show remorse” but without the customer feeling that they are permanently unwelcome and can never re-book.

Personalise the story

No-show remorse has to be the catalyst for turning negative customers into positive assets for the business. Restaurants need customers to understand the impact of their no-show on the business but give them an open door to re-book the restaurant, without black marks against them, however angry the restaurant owner may be.

When a customer makes a booking, a bit of psychology can go a long way to generating loyalty. The restaurant can tell customers how the business is doing in the crisis, and how every customer counts: bookers who hear a story with a vibrant picture painted of the people within are more likely to feel an obligation to buy.

For example, customers are much more likely to feel a loyalty to their booking if, instead of hearing “your reservation is confirmed” they experience “Brian and Sandra will be your service staff that night” or “your booking is so important to keeping us open as a resource for the community…”. In pure sales terms, this is the classic “puppy dog” technique: make such a compelling portrait of the product/service/people that the customer simply cannot pass it up.

There is also absolutely nothing wrong with restaurateurs explaining to customers the impact of no-shows on their business and staff lives at the time of booking. Customers too must take responsibility for the effect their choices and behaviours have on local businesses. Empathy goes both ways, right?

Customers must learn new norms

It is simply unfair of customers to book, then not turn up. But now, more than ever, restaurants need to harness potential revenue even if the customer didn’t show on day one. The job to be done, therefore, is to turn the no-show customer into a show, and a show again. Shouting at them just loses that potential revenue for good.

Customers have to accept that restaurants have every right to put in place whatever business safeguards their owners feel necessary, particularly in the current climate, to help eliminate no-shows. Put simply, restaurateurs shouldn’t get mad, they should get even.

Would-be diners should get used to leaving non-refundable deposits when they book. If they are unwilling, then they cannot make a booking and therefore cannot no-show – problem solved. Food & beverage businesses are one of the last bastions of the no-deposit culture in the service sector and customers must expect this to change.

Why is there hesitancy in the industry to introduce deposit taking or pre-paying? There appears to be a feeling that the customer won’t like it and that, according to guests of the phone-in, new systems are costly to administer with the time it takes to accept payments over the phone. Not true on both counts: customers have become very used to leaving deposits or pre-paying across a range of service provision, from car hire to holidays, theatre tickets to hotels and a host of other activities. Why not apply this to restaurants?

As for the time taken to process a card deposit, there are many high-tec solutions out there which will do this quickly, easily and safely. For example, UK-based software FavouriteTable has a “card over the phone” system which allows restaurateurs, during a live phone booking, to send the customer a link to a secure portal to input their details directly and complete the transaction. Such systems move the responsibility for data input to the customer, giving the business owner time to concentrate on other tasks. Isn’t that neat?

Better still, why not take the whole amount in advance for, say, redeemable loyalty points or a discount on the published prices? Drinks and extras would be payable on the day and present an upsell opportunity. Whatever, times have changed so diners should expect restaurants to take a more robust approach to pre-payments.

Reduced Capacity

Restaurants are having to cope with an increase in no-shows while already dealing with reduced capacity due to social distancing. That’s a double whammy and one that few can sustain. But there are options to offset this, with a little creative thinking.

Customers of FavouriteTable have seen phenomenal success with the company’s dining-at-home ordering system, which allows customers to browse a menu on the restaurant’s website and unlike traditional take-away software book their dining days or even weeks in advance.
The system effectively uses the customers’ own homes as extensions to the restaurant’s floor plan and allows the chef and their brigade to properly plan procurement, arrange staffing and on the day prepare the dishes exactly as normal. The only difference is that after leaving the kitchen, the food is collected by the customer or delivered to them by the restaurant. The customer’s table becomes a restaurant table and make no mistake, this is not take-away, it is at-home fine dining. Plus, of course, happy chefs equals a happy business.

FavouriteTable CEO Jaipal Yadav reckons the dining at home concept is here to stay: “Many of our customers, in addition to seeing the dining-at-home-concept as a solution to restricted capacity caused by the pandemic, now tell me that pre-bookable, menu-driven and delivered dining is a new sales channel which will endure long after the current crisis ends.”

To conclude

Restaurateurs have every right to be angry about no-shows – never has there been a worse time for customers to behave this way. However, hospitality is all about making guests welcome and generating profit from their custom. Rather than blacklisting customers, business owners might consider strategies which create no-show remorse coupled with an open door policy, even if through gritted teeth.

A further adoption of available technologies and innovative thinking should see lost revenues back-filled and sustainable new sales channels created. Customers, too, must accept the drive towards financial commitment at the time of booking if they are to benefit from the endeavours of restaurants doing their damndest to provide great food, drink and service in extremely challenging times.

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