Listening to Your Current Restaurant Guests May Be The Best Way To Get More Of Them Through the Door

by Rick Hendrie

According to conventional wisdom, the best way to get new customers is to go out and advertise to the consumers that you do not currently have. That is a falsehood.  You count visits and bank dollars. Why not look to the guests you already have to market your concept.

Does advertising have a place? Of course, in the same way that charcoal starter fluid does in getting briquettes to burn. But the most powerful, long-term form of marketing is to focus on current customers. Why? They know who you are and what you do. They already have shown a predisposition to like you.

Farming vs. hunting

When you focus on your current guests to build the business, you move into the paradigm I call "farming". Its polar opposite, "hunting," is using such things as print ads, TV commercials or coupons that 
bag a small percentage of the customers at whom you're shooting. We live in a consumer society where the hunters rule. The reason you don't feel their bullets is that you have developed a impenetrable hide of steel and are oblivious of the thousands of advertising messages aimed at you every single day.

"Farming" posits that you cultivate with current guests relationships that, as they deepen, create both an unbreakable bond and unvarnished, enthusiastic "word­of-mouth" marketing. Is there a better, more compelling, more cost-effective form of advertising.

For those of you who still pine for the elusive guest you haven't got, consider this: As a rule, 10 percent to 15 percent of your current guests are new. They never have been to your location before but have stumbled in by happenstance or some local contact.

We are a mobile society, in which populations not only grow but also change over time. Even if you are in a city where there is little net-population gain, consumers are still moving in and out because of job or life changes. That means the guest you don't have, you do have! So maximize the quality and quantity of interactions with people you already know. Orchestrate word-of-mouth marketing that self-perpetuates your business.

Focus on your core relationships. How well do you know your guests? If you have done your research, you know the breakout of first-time, light, medium and heavy users of your restaurant. That data allows you to calculate the total number of unique visits guests pay in an average year. I suggest, for most restaurants, the number will range in the thousands. Do you know each of the guest' names? Where they live? Where they work and what they do? If they are married, have kids, have significant others? In studying the concept, I have found that most restaurateurs know less than 10 percent of their guests in this intimate way, and I'm being generous.

Why does it matter? We live in an age when Americans seek human community, authentic relationships and real connections with each other. Starbuck's appeal comes, in part, because the company has tapped into that longing for a "third place" between home and work or school. When you commit to a guest-relationship-marketing focus, you will be able to tap into the same lodestone.

Create conversations. Now the paradigm shifts: Guest­Relationship marketing gains its power as a consequences of the momentum created by dozens of relevant conversations between you and the guest. No one conversation is a magic bullet designed to bring the masses in - although there are very effective promotional components to that concept. The guest gains trust in you and your sincerity over time. In the book "Engaging Customers in e-Business" authors Jeffery Farriss and Laura Langendorf stated, "Consumers will be less inclined to tune out sales information once they've grown to trust a brand or company."

You need to create opportunities to converse with the guest that feel human and natural. See it as a 24-7 proposition. Here are some suggestions:

  • Think as the guest thinks. Garrulous chitchat instead of simple service is not worthwhile conversation.

  • Find out what is of interest to the guest. Simply telling him things of interest to you is boring.

  • View the conversation "as virtual." It takes place not only on the premises but also online.

  • Solicit feedback as a means to start a relationship.

  • Respond to feedback quickly and solicit more.

That's all easier said than done. We take guest' temperature regularly. We have comment cards and mystery shops to gauge performance. We train managers to survey the dining room and "touch every table." That's all good, but it is the gradual, natural, conversation between you and your guest that acts as the connective tissue and perpetuates success.


Consider the following tactics, which work together, in a comprehensive guest-relationship marketing program.

  • Create an e-mail VIP club in which guests opt in. Reward them. Communicate frequently on topics of  interest to  them and relevant to you.

  • Identify your most frequent guests and offer them the privilege - and incentive - of referring friends to you.

  • Develop an aggressive e-feedback system that solicits guest feedback and answers it immediately. Use the information as a kind of virtual focus group and training aid to reward the right behavior of your staff of actors and correct what is inconsistent with your values.

  • Incorporate a debit card or swipe system that allows you to identify guests as they enter and reward them for their patronage. Sell gift certificates via those cards and enjoy the magic of "breakage" and the beauty of "the float" without the fraud found with paper.

Guest-relationship marketing does not discount advertising. It focuses the majority of your marketing resources against the target most likely to respond – the guests currently coming through your doors.

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