Restaurant Experiences That Drive Me MAD! What Can We Learn From These?


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My two favorite Muppets were Statler and Waldorf. You might remember these were the two old guys that sat on the balcony and heckled the show. However, instead of cleverly improving the comedy of the vaudeville-style variety show in the 70s, I will heckle the restaurant experience. Not only that, but we will also use their example for what not to do in yours.

The idea for this podcast came about because my podcast partner Ryan and I discussed what drives us mad about restaurants and what we might do differently, given the chance. However, when we took a step back, we realized that many of these improvements apply to businesses other than eateries.

The restaurant experience has many behavioral science principles at work. The concepts are sometimes challenging to communicate; therefore, restaurants serve up (see what I did there?) many excellent examples of these ideas at work in customer behavior. So, let’s get started with my first complaint, which is…

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Some Restaurants Don’t Know The Business They Are In

There is a difference between dining and eating—not just because I am British. Dining is going out for a few hours in a relaxed setting to eat and socialize over an extended time. Eating is far more practical and with a quick turnover. You want to get the food quickly, eat it, and leave.

Also, dining experiences have a lot of specifics, too. For example, it could be a family gathering or a romantic night out. Or the people dining could be foodies that savor the unique flavors and wash them down with different wines. Each of these customer-driven specifics has different expectations regarding the value the restaurant provides. The restaurant should be aware of them and respond in kind.

This concept of being aware of the value you provide through your experience applies to any business. You need to know what job you are doing for your customers to do it well.

Sometimes, restaurants are not aware of their business, the value they provide, or my expectations for the value they provide. I’ve often been to restaurants where food is coming out of the kitchen, but it’s not coming to me. It’s coming out in paper bags as a takeaway. Sometimes it’s unclear if guests in the dining room should have ordered ahead and taken the bags to the table.

The pandemic changed the restaurant business in a pretty dramatic way. Some restaurants figured it out and ramped up their takeaway capabilities. However, now that people are back in the dining room, they haven’t completely figured out how to do both.

For example, there is a favorite takeaway restaurant that my podcast partner orders from regularly that has a large dining room. However, these processes are meshed. So, the person that seats people is also the person that gets your to-go order. He notices that people lined up behind him often have to wait a lot longer while the person goes to get his food. In this instance, separating the two experiences would improve both customers’ journeys.

Restaurants should know what value they provide by the type of restaurant they are, too. Is it a high-end dining experience or a low-end fast casual eat-it-and-go operation? Then, they should send those signals to customers to set the proper expectations.

For example, my wife pointed out that a restaurant she wanted to try near our home in Florida had linen tablecloths. Now, as soon as she mentioned it, I realized that she differentiated that restaurant from others nearby because of the tablecloths. It sent a signal that it would be a high-end dining experience.

By contrast, a different restaurant with linen tablecloths also handed us a laminated menu. To me, this was a mixed signal. If linen tablecloths signal high-end, laminated menus did not. In this case, the menu didn’t seem appropriate for that type of environment.

Speaking of menus, can we please all agree that the QR code menu needs to go? They put the obligation on the customer to pull out their phones, which ostensibly they put away for their dining experience. Moreover, the menu is rarely optimized for mobile, meaning I have to zoom around on a PDF or some other ridiculousness. I read recently that these might be on the decline, which I honestly couldn’t be happier about. They don’t send a great signal to customers and certainly don’t enhance the experience.

In other words, every decision you make sends signals to your customers. So, are you sending the right ones with the various moments in your experience, and are they communicating the values your customers came to you for?

Service Systems That Do Not Put The Customer First

One of the critical interactions in a dining experience is between the customer and the waitstaff. This interaction can set the proper tone for the experience.

However, the wait staff can break the tone of the experience by interrupting a conversation at the table. This behavior is rude in any situation, but even more so when chatting with your friends and family at the table.

This situation reminds me of something our guest Joe Pine said when he joined us recently. Pine made the point that you want customers to consider that the time engaged with your organization is well spent. Interruptions do not encourage this feeling. Instead, they say, “I am ready for you, so please listen to me because my time as the waiter is more important than yours as the customer.”

Another thing that makes me cross with the waitstaff is when the waiter that took your order not 15 minutes ago comes back and asks who had what. Can’t they remember? If not, can’t they write it down or draw a little map on the notepad when they take the order?

These little signals indicate that you are not very important to them. Or they hired the wrong person to be a server in this dining environment. (To be fair, there has also been a labor shortage since the pandemic. Maybe that could go away with the QR code menus!) It’s also indicative of a systems issue. The system they use—or don’t use— is convenient for the staff but doesn’t do much for the customers.

These little things add to customers’ overall perception of good or bad service. When you get to the end of an experience with these hiccups, you likely won’t evaluate the experience as favorably as you would have if they had done a better job with the little things.

Not Providing Enough Distance Between Experiences

We recently went to another new restaurant in Florida, which also made me crazy. The tables were so close together that you couldn’t hear yourself talk. The restaurant wanted to squeeze as many people as possible into the dining room. As a result, everybody tried to talk over you so their dining partner could listen to them.

Some people like this setting, of course. Some customers love the energy of a crowded room. Maybe these same customers will go out on the town or see a show later—the highly energetic (read: crowded and loud) restaurant was what they wanted.

However, other people that wanted to have a conversation, like me, did not want this setting.

My podcast partner has a similar complaint about restaurants that book an act to play during dinner. Too often, the room isn’t great for the performance, and the performer is crowded next to tables that weren’t aware they would have front-row seats to the restaurant owner’s cousin’s new stand-up comedy set or accordion act.

These problems reflect a lack of awareness about what customers want from the experience. If diners value a chance to talk to their dinner companions at your establishment, don’t muck it up with loud acoustics in a tiny box of a room. Further, don’t surprise them with it.

This criticism applies to non-restaurants, too. Know your customers and what they value from your experience. If you don’t, you risk changing it and cutting out the parts they like best.

Not Putting Everything on the Menu

They have the starters. They have soups, salads, entrees, desserts, and kids’ dishes. Sometimes they have the “lighter fare” or the “from the chef” sections. But many restaurants leave some critical things off the menu.

What did they leave out, the wine list? Nope. They had a separate one for that.

The happy hour specials? Nope. Those were on the table tent.

Then what?

They left out the dollar signs. These matter more than you think.

I read an article from Cornell about dining in an upscale casual restaurant. It turns out that customers spend an average of $5.55, or about 8% more when the menu doesn’t have dollar signs on the prices. Leaving those off helps some people forget they are spending money. Dollar signs would make them thriftier with their choices.

My podcast partner wants to see more vegan choices on there. A couple of his kids eat vegan, so they need to know what they can have. However, some restaurants don’t feature this section. This approach shows that these customers with specific food preferences are unimportant to you.

I also like seeing the calories on the menu. These calorie count differences between foods are surprising, and it changes what I order. Now, some customers might not care about the calories. They would see that the dish has more calories than their recommended caloric intake for the entire day and ignore it, which is fine. Others might see the calorie counts and feel annoyed because they don’t want to know how many calories their favorite dish has.

What is essential to take away from this complaint is that many people will eat at a restaurant. Accommodating them with what you put on the menu is critical. It shows that you put their experience first, which is the approach that gets customers to return. Businesses would be wise to segment their offering to make it easier for the different segments of their customer base to find what they need—and show that the organization can accommodate those needs.

So, as the two grumpy Muppets we know we are, that’s our critique of restaurants. However, these things also apply outside the dining establishment arena. We encourage all businesses to consider the answers to the following questions:

  • Who is your customer?
  • What’s your offering? Are you clear about your offering?
  • Are you sending signals that reinforce or detract from your offering?
  • Are you clear about where your market is and why?
  • What value do you provide to the various customer segments that do business with you?

Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to dine. All this complaining about restaurants has made me quite hungry.

Do you have any complaints about restaurants? Please share them in the comments.

We can help improve your Customer Experience and Marketing and gain growth. Beyond Philosophy has been recognized by the Financial Times as the leading management consultancy for four years. Why not talk with Colin and his team about how we can help you gain growth? Click here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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