Optimizing the Restaurant Experience by Identifying Guests’ Key Decision Drivers

When a guest enters your restaurant, rarely will they come in having never heard of your establishment, having no expectations of what they’ll experience and no purpose of being there except that they’re hungry. In fact, the guest walking in your door has already created an expectation from what they’ve heard or seen through various communications or touch points.  When we talk about touch points, we’re referring to each and every point of contact your customer can have with your restaurant. This goes beyond the obvious interactions that guests will have with your server to interactions that are created with messages. Each time someone hears about your establishment, sees an advertisement, reads a review or drives by and glances at your sign, customers and potential customers are processing those messages and developing perceptions and expectations about what experience they will have at your restaurant.

One of the most critical touch points indeed involves the messages and descriptions of your brand, or the value promise, that are projected by you and others in the marketplace.  Along with past experience, these messages or promises, in part, influence the decision process of whether or not customers come to your restaurant. However, different customers make decisions based on a different set of needs.

There are generally five “decision drivers” that lead guests to decide to “purchase” from you. There are others of course, but these are the core reasons that can be identified easily and addressed by you and your staff so that your customers’ needs and expectations are met or exceeded.

“The Celebration”

The first, and mostly easily identifiable decision, is a” life event”. These are celebrations- of a holiday, a new job or promotion, anniversary or a birthday. These are easily identifiable because they can be revealed through a simple question: “are you celebrating anything this evening?” for example. They may also be identified through your birthday/anniversary club or other loyalty program, or they may have mentioned the occasion when they made the reservation. Or if they enter your place with gifts or balloons, that’s a pretty sure sign. Most guests, but not all, really enjoy having their occasion at least acknowledged, if not celebrated. This is particularly true if they’ve mentioned their special occasion when they made reservations so be sure to check the notes in your reservation system. Recognition of the event with a little extra- a glass of champagne, congratulations by the owner, or a complimentary dessert goes a long way to enhance your guests’ experience and meet their needs to have their occasion acknowledged. This is an easy one and although it is practiced by most establishments, not meeting the needs of this decision driver can really disappoint guests and degrade their experience.

“The Situational Need”

The second decision driver is the “situational event”. Rather than a life event, this is a “day in the life” event. By that we mean the decision serves a situational need that day- perhaps your guests came in to enjoy a drink or dinner before a show or they’re hoping to just enjoy the entire evening at your place, lingering leisurely over dinner and bottle of wine. Alternatively, they may just be hungry and maybe want to run out for a “quick bite”.  Why is this critical to identify? Not meeting the guest’s situational expectation will leave them feeling annoyed, unfulfilled or even angry. Here again, most of it is about creating the right experience that meets their specific needs and timing is one key ingredient. Rushing guests that are there to relax, unwind and enjoy the evening can ruin an experience.  Alternatively, delays with bringing the check or picking up the payment can infuriate guests who need to get to somewhere or who just expected to get in and out. Observing cues and asking a few simple questions will uncover situational needs allowing both the front and back of house to respond appropriately.

“The Experiential Need”

Every restaurant concept promises the delivery of a specific experience, through both physical and non-physical means. The experiential need decision driver takes place when a guest has decided they want to experience your brand, including the food, décor, ambiance, and overall “feel” they expect. The need might be to experience an ethnic or “themed” experience, or a desire for a particular type of food. For example, guests may decide to come to your French restaurant because they hope to have an experience that evokes fond memories of their time in Paris. Or they may be in the mood for sushi. Any theme or concept, to meet this desire of their customers to enjoy a specific experience must deliver messages and products that are consistent with, and reinforce, the theme or concept throughout the entire guest experience. The experience created must be consistent and authentic as well.

This decision driver is not as easy to identify, but can be equally as damaging to a guest’s experience if you miss the mark. Simple questions by the hostess, observations by the waiter, etc., with some skill can reveal this decision driver. Creating a consistent experience that is evoked by your brand may require bigger adjustments or even systemic changes. Nonetheless, failing to identify a need of your guests to experience your brand will be a missed opportunity for creating loyalty.

“Top 3”

The third event should be easy to identify and satisfy, but it’s also the event with the most at stake. This is the “Top 3” reason for purchasing. Statistics show that customers will go to one of their top three favorite restaurants more than 70% of the time they go out to eat. These are the repeat customers that are most loyal to their three favorite restaurants. If you’re one of those three, you’re in a special position to reinforce that experience and meet the needs of familiarity, friendliness, and consistency through intimate guest knowledge.

Not reinforcing and further building loyalty is a missed opportunity. Why do customers only have a few favorite places in their rotation? There are several reasons. First, these are the places where they enjoy a specific product that is consistently prepared and presented on every visit. Second, these are the places that remember their guests’ names, what they like, what table they prefer and what server they’ve become friends with. Or at the least, they feel familiar and friendly to guests. Finally, guests will purchase from their top three restaurants because they enjoy being part of their success. They truly feel a part of your restaurant and the brand, and in return expect to be treated as more than just a valued customer, but as a part of what your restaurant represents. Not acknowledging your fans, remember their names or preferences, inconsistent product or service that does not live up to your brand promise and the “standard treatment” will take you off of their top 3 list in a hurry.

“Let’s Try It”

The final primary decision driver happens with new customers – the “I’ve heard great things and can’t wait to try it” guest that has developed perceptions and expectations about your establishment and is joining you for the first time with much anticipation. This is your opportunity to create an experience that exceeds your new guests’ expectations to give them a reason to come back. With some observation and a simple question- “is this your first time dining with us?” identifying this decision driver should be simple. However, executing to deliver on and exceed those expectations is not always so simple.

First, you have to understand what it is your new guests’ expect. That is, what have they heard, what images and perceptions have they created and what do they hope to accomplish with their visit. Again, some skilled questions can begin to reveal this. “How did you hear about us?” “What made you decide to try us this evening?” “What have you heard about us?” These questions will also reveal the type of awareness that you and your other guests are creating in the marketplace. “I’m a big rib fan and I hear this is a great rib place.” That could be a message that was on target, unless you don’t happen to serve ribs or you’re actually a burger place. “We came in because of the great write-up you got in the paper.” Do you know what the write-up said and can you deliver on the type of experience that was promised in the article? As a final example:  “My friends said this was a really great place.” Great- but ask them why their friends said it was great and make sure it is great. Identifying a new guest, understanding why they decided to “try you out” and delivering on those expectations will get them to return.

Identify and Manage Key Decision Drivers

Guests have myriad of reasons for deciding to purchase from you.  Decision processes can take into account price, peer pressure, convenience, hunger or even whim. In addition, these five primary categories of decision drivers aren’t always discrete, that is customers may have two or more reasons to join you.

However, these five significant categories of decision making should be identified and managed to ensure that you are meeting or exceeding those needs that drive their decisions.  Ensuring your marketing messages, concept, design and your overall promise to the customer are aligned and consistent will give you a head start in understanding what your customers expect. After all, you are in part responsible for creating those expectations. Through observation and interaction and asking the right questions you uncover their needs and then you execute on the delivery. It’s not difficult, but it takes discipline, practice and training to make sure that everyone does their part to learn why a customer has just come through your door and to give them a reason to come back again.

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Mark Marone is a Partner and Consultant of Customer input Limited based in Tampa, Florida. He has over 15 years of experience in research and consulting with a focus on customer service and sales process improvement.

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