Big data says that consumers of various ages and demographics have different preferences and priorities when it comes to service at restaurants. To capture the millennial diner, you have to have quick, frictionless service, whereas Boomers, for the most part, care more about personalized service than speed. Similar generalizations can be made about consumers based on ethnicity, geography and more.
While what the research shows may be true and insightful at a high level, it’s not necessarily the reality at individual restaurants. After asking several restaurateurs about the differences they’ve observed among the groups, the answer is clear: All customers are different; they cannot be defined—and thus served—based on the expected traits of their backgrounds. In fact, “it becomes a problem when you do try to differentiate,” says David Tornek, co-owner of the two Meat Market steak houses in southern Florida.
Instead, he and other operators set up and train staffers to be flexible. A big part of that training is “to take each guest on a case-by-case basis,” says Patrick Yearout, director of recruiting and training for Ivar’s Restaurants’ 24 quick-service and full-service seafood locations. “We figure each one out on their own.” To make that individual connection, here are some tips to teach front-of-house staffers, who interact with guests the most, from hosts and servers to bussers and cashiers:
It’s the most basic way to connect with guests, but also the most effective. “Listen closely to what people are asking for, what brought them there,” says Jeff Lefcourt, co-owner and operator of Corner Table Restaurants in New York City. But also watch body language, he says. Does the guest have a book, likely wanting less interaction? Is it a business lunch, so you need to be ready with the check quickly? If they’re drinking, should you offer another cocktail after plates are cleared?
In addition to training servers to pay attention to consumers’ spoken and visual signals, Yearout teaches staffers at Seattle-based Ivar’s to mirror guests’ behavior. “It’s a sales technique. If a guest comes in and they are in a hurry, your response should be to serve at the same speed. If a customer is frantic about something, show concern, responding to whatever cues they’re giving you,” he says.
Practice to avoid a shutdown
With the countless number of diets and taste preferences of today’s consumer, special requests are frequent. To avoid servers having that “Um, what?” moment when thrown a curveball, these operators plan for such scenarios in advance. “We train [staffers] to listen, write down the request and repeat it back,” says Tornek. If the server is hit with a request they’ve never heard before, they’re taught to check with the kitchen and have a manager reconfirm with the guest. Meat Market includes role playing as part of its training. Prairie du Sac, Wisc.-based Culver’s, the quick-serve burger chain, has a similar practice as part of its training, where managers hold up pictures of potential diners and have staff rehearse how to build a connection.