Valentine's Day has me thinking about how new lovers aren't all that different from new restaurant customers: Both want attention that affirms the other party really cares about them.
Ironically, restaurateurs also tend to treat customers the way lovers do —s howering new ones with gifts (discounts, two-fers, freebies) at the beginning of the relationship and doing nearly anything to make those initial impressions memorable. Yet over time, the torrent of baubles and blandishments slows to a trickle; in some cases it dries up.
That's OK with some lovers, mature couples who are confident their relationship won't collapse if the customary bouquet of roses and box of mystery chocolates doesn't arrive. Each has treated the other so well over time that acting romantic on a Hallmark day is no longer required. They're there for each other because both parties have treated each other well for the long term.
Unfortunately, restaurant customers — new and sometimes loyal — aren't always as forgiving. Spoiled by the royal treatment they got at the outset, some expect that coddling (e.g. a free appetizer there or a greeting there) at every point of the relationship. They've not given up their hearts, man, they've given up their hard-earned cash and they expect to be appreciated!
Others aren't so vocal about demanding things "The way they were;" they just feel the inattention, sense a separation and go elsewhere. Sure, such non-confrontational types might be quiet, but if you asked them why they left, it's doubtful they'd pull the old, "It's not you, it's me," copout, because it is you. You changed and they didn't like you anymore.
So how can you "romance" your customers every day, not just on Valentine's Day? Firstly, let them know that you know they are your customers, not just run of the mill people who might stop by. Let them know you appreciate them because they ate at your place.
Do that by engaging them and — to extend this Valentine's analogy — courting them a bit. Give them reasons to return for that second date, or, if they're loyal customers, reasons to keep coming back. Some operators use emails to thank guests for their patronage, others do it in person. Others still communicate directly to customers through their smartphones. However you do it, just do it. Let them know you care by showing them you care.
But just as love is a two-way street, business is as well, and smart operators know this. They know that to engage customers directly, they have to get information—snail mail, email, phone numbers, etc.—so they can start a dialogue with them. And in that conversation they find out what each customer likes, how often they buy those things and why.
Then, just like any sensible lover would, they give those loyal customers a gift, be it a free drink or food item they like or admission to a private club or function — whatever it takes to make them feel they are uniquely special, and that you're aware of their personal preferences.
Thank goodness there's an abundance of tech tools that allow restaurateurs to harvest such customer preferences precisely. Unlike the game of love, there's no guessing whether a customer likes a particular item if she buys it four times. Just as many women have told their men, "Get me what you know I like, not what you think I'd like."
The great news is today's restaurateurs have the opportunity to do all that and more: know what their customers want, like and how to reach them. And when they act on it, their customers get the attention they crave.