A monochrome scene at a busy restaurant bar.

3 Things the Restaurant Industry Can Teach Your Customer Experience

Successful maîtres d’ have an unnervingly fine taste (sorry) for a good customer experience. Let’s see what the restaurant service industry has to offer.

Previously in our series on what CX tricks can be learned from paying attention to fields outside our own, we looked at things-sci-fi-and-fantasy-world-building-can-teach-your-customer-experience and the literary hero’s journey. Today we’re going to take a gander at something we’ve all had dealings with (in some way or another): restaurants.

You’re looking at a trove of spiffing takeaways. Let’s tuck in, shall we?


1: Personas are vital – if they’re valid

In the restaurant service industry ‘you need to be a psychologist,’ says José Etura, general manager of UK tapas establishment Barrafina, in a marvelous article on The Guardian. ‘You need to understand different sorts of people, that a banker is not the same as an 18-year-old student.’

Top-notch maître d’ Gina Glennon has a beautiful trick for this – she engineers on-the-spot personas for her customers, using hunch and empathy to fill in the story of their lives. ‘I’m making a personality for them,’ she tells The Guardian.

Crucially, though, she tests her hypotheses with some good ol’ googling. ‘You plot and plan beforehand and then the doors open and you go live. But you have to do that “wax-on, wax-off” homework or you’re just doing it by luck.’

The takeaway? Get on those personas if you haven’t already – but make sure you validate them with actual customer research. Treat your persona sheets as living documents, and update them with any nuggets of valuable truth you manage to extract from your interactions with your clients.


2: Being proactive and accountable is better than being perfect

There is nothing more disingenuous than a business doing everything in its power to seem perfect. Don’t be that business.

‘[I]n my opinion, it doesn’t matter what has happened, it’s how you deal with it,’ says Danielle Thompson, general manager of Scott’s Mayfair, to The Guardian.

‘Some of our best customer relationships have been conceived in a moment of awfulness where somebody has complained. That’s your opportunity then.’

How to capitalize on that opportunity? ‘It’s about taking ownership, being on the front foot, and smiling and communicating. All basic principles but oft forgotten in restaurants.’ And, we might mention, oft forgotten in pretty much every industry alongside the restaurant service industry.

As for being on the front foot – that’s classic proactive service right there. Glennon, for example, makes a habit of walking through the dining room and touching every table. ‘It says, “Can I help? I’m here if you need…” It’s not the customer’s job to ask; it’s our job to offer.’

Pre-empt your customer. Figure out what they need to know before they ask for it, then give them that. And if you make a mistake, own it quickly and with frankness, make it right, and move forward together.


3. You kinda have to, y’know, love people

The thread that runs through The Guardian’s piece is a simple, unadorned enjoyment of people. Every person interviewed has something of a knack for wanting people to be happy.

‘On a very basic level, it’s satisfying to please people through the medium of food and drink,’ says Thompson, who jettisoned a potential career as a geneticist to follow her love. Glennon, meanwhile, was shifted to the maître d’ side of things after she flubbed a waiting job but showed a clear enjoyment of – and facility with – her customers.

The Guardian article has a truly lovely story to tell of maître d’ Elena Salvoni, who died practically on the job at the age of 95. She was so attentive and observant that, once, she noticed a man patting his pockets down and knew, intuitively, that he’d left his wallet at home. So she took him aside on a pretext and told him not to worry about it – that he could pay the next day. That’s some major, major kudos right there.

If she had a singular secret to her success, it would likely be this: ‘She just loved people,’ her son says. ‘She liked seeing everyone happy.’

Businesses that are in the game for nothing more than extracting money from their customers have no place in this world. But if you adore and respect your customers? If your game is to help them, celebrate them and grow with them?

You’re going to go really far.