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Top 12 tips from the Restaurant Leadership Conference

As you sort through the 7-inch-high stack of business cards you collected at the Restaurant Leadership Conference, consider a dozen of the tips that were grapeshot at attendees in the event’s other form of networking, the sharing of best practices. 

Creepiness works with Millennials.  Restaurants can learn fairly intimate details about their customers through social media and other digital advances, but youngsters seem to relish rather than resent having their privacy penetrated.  For the most part, operators can use that data to customize experiences without fear of being labeled Peeping Toms. "Millennials don’t mind the creepiness as much," said Penelope Crocker, director of restaurant marketing strategy for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. Kimpton uses the profiling to have a bottle of Champagne waiting for patrons on an anniversary or other special occasion.

Don’t forget the cup. When repositioning a restaurant concept, make sure the hot and cold drink cups reflect the new image. The cup is what many customers remember—they take it out of the restaurant and see it in the car, on their desk, on the kitchen counter.

Fail faster. Don't be afraid to fail, but when you see that something is not working, get out of it quickly, advised Liz Smith, CEO of Bloomin' Brands. Dunkin’ Brands CEO Nigel Travis readily agreed. “Sometimes you have to kill your own babies,” he said.

Spotlight your failures. Bloomin’ Brands’ Smith posts hers on a headquarters “wall of shame” that subordinates can see and digest.  GE Capital’s Todd Jones advised franchisors to develop a formal process for identifying mistakes and dissecting them for insights about what to do if a similar situation arises.

Have the big guns woo ‘brand ambassadors.’ There’s competition for the local bloggers and Yelpers who can influence restaurant traffic as “brand ambassadors,” the arbiters of what places are worth a visit. Because those specialized citizen-reviewers have gone mainstream, their checklists of places to visit are often set six months out, said Greg Dollarhyde, the CEO of 23-unit Veggie Grill. If you’re lucky enough to get your place on their schedule, make them feel special by enlisting C-level executives as greeters. Jeff Jenkins, senior digital and mobile leader of Taco Bell, often attends Yelp events at stores around the country. And if you’re not sure who those influencers might be in certain markets, solicit the help of local PR agencies, advised Jeremy Morgan, senior vice president of marketing and consumer insights for Smashburger.

Aim high in your catering delivery guy. In off-premise catering, the delivery person may be the only point of contact between a customer and the restaurant. He or she should be considered a manager, not simply the person who totes the order. Hire the best, pay them well and train them in customer relations.

Dial into one-stop-shop mobile. Consumers want simplicity, and an all-in-one app that includes a loyalty program, feedback mechanisms, social media connections, online ordering and payment options gives that to them, speakers at the RLC agreed. Plus, it’s only one platform for an operator to manage.

Personalize loyalty offers. If your address to loyalty-program members usually starts, “Dear (fill in blank),” you might as well offer a free Model T starter crank as the premium.  The days of impersonal mass messages is over.

Go back to non-spenders one more time. If a member of your loyalty program doesn’t respond to the offer of a freebie or other perk, redraft the come-on and go back to them one more time.  The second invitation cited as an example: “You have three days left to redeem your birthday offer.”

Tell your story. Millennials in particular want to know who you are and how you got there. They want to meet your brand, not just use it.

‘Flip the lens.’ A black-box mindset can be deadly for a service business. If yours is feeling insular, with more attention paid to headquarters dynamics and stakeholders, “flip the lens” and determine what customers want and think, advised Bloomin’s Smith.

Draft a digital roadmap.  Blindly shuffling forward into technology, casually browsing whatever’s new or in vogue, is not the way to manage that increasingly larger responsibility for restaurateurs, RLC speakers agreed. A number advised attendees to draft a strategic plan, with milestones of where you intend to be on technology at a particular date.

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