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The Art of Table Touch: How a Manager’s Time at the Table Can Create a Guest For Life

Posted by Brady Thomason, NetSuite Solution Manager, Restaurant & Hospitality

Consumers today are living in the experience economy. A term first coined more than 20 years ago, the experience economy symbolizes a shift in consumerism where the memory of a product or service becomes the product itself. Nowhere is the focus on customer experience more prevalent than the restaurant industry.

As participants in this experience economy, Americans value experiences over things. Check out these figures from a recent SevenRooms study, “Turning a Meal Into an Experience”:

Almost one-quarter of Americans have visited a restaurant because of the way the food or atmosphere looked on social media.

More than half responded that a waiter or waitress remembering their name would make their visit more memorable.

Nearly one-quarter wouldn’t return if their dining experience wasn’t “memorable or special.”

A key component of the restaurant experience is the interaction with staff. In addition to beautiful decor and ambiance, diners expect restaurants to engage, empower, hear, delight and know them in a personalized way.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to be Norm from Cheers. There’s nothing better than walking into a restaurant, being greeted by name and having exactly what you want (a cold beer in this case) placed in front of you.

With turnover rates hovering around 75% in the restaurant industry, many of these personalized experiences are tough to replicate. Restaurant staff are not sticking around long enough to get to know patrons. However, restaurants do have another important arrow in their quiver: the manager’s process of visiting and checking in on tables throughout service, otherwise known as table touching.

How Does Table Touching Support a Positive Restaurant Experience?

When performed well, a table touch enhances the restaurant experience for diners by bringing an additional human connection and an extra means of support and service to the table. Maybe the manager approaches a chatty group that wants to know more about when the restaurant opened, who the chef is and how the menu was developed. Or the waitstaff is backed up and a manager can step in and pre-bus, refill glasses and take dessert orders.

Even more important is the manager’s ability to correct a problem while guests are still at the table. Once they leave the restaurant, it’s too late. In our world of instant gratification via social media, a seemingly small slip can turn into a PR event that millions read if gone unchecked.

And those reviews and comments on platforms like Yelp can have a big impact:

Whatever the case, a table touch can be a supplement to the dining experience - like a vitamin. The manager might have the opportunity to boost guest interest, share special events, or even turn a negative experience into a positive one.

Consider these scenarios: a couple walks into a restaurant and is seated at a table but ends up waiting roughly 10-15 minutes to be served. After their food arrives, they alert the waitress that there’s a bug in the salad. At another table, a group of four enjoy their meal and hear about some mouth-watering dessert specials, but they’re too full to order.

The first couple lets the manager know about both the waitstaff delay and the bug in the food. They’re given half off their check and a complimentary dessert. The manager also gives the group of four a gift card to come back and try the decadent dessert. But without that manager’s table touch, the opportunity to create an experience—especially one patrons will share with others in a positive light—is lost.

So how do restaurant managers enable these interactions?

Pay Attention to Cues

One of the most important things a manager can do when visiting tables is to follow social cues from diners, including body language. A guest’s interest in attention can range from wanting to be completely left alone, to some conversation, to engagement whenever they see the manager.

Aside from how much guests want to interact, there’s also complaints that come up: cold or undercooked food, incorrect orders or long wait times. To ferret out these issues, managers should be scanning the area for faces of concern or patrons trying to get a waiter’s attention.

If managers are going to add to the experience with a table touch, it’s important that they observe these cues before approaching guests. Otherwise their presence might have a negative effect. There’s nothing like being in the middle of telling an engaging story only to be interrupted, or having a manager approach a guest who has only picked at their food and not ask how the meal tastes.

Gather Information Wherever Possible

As managers are making their rounds, it’s important not just to observe before approaching, but to ask questions once they get to the table. Going beyond the standard “How is everything this evening?” will go a long way towards giving managers the tools to create a memorable experience.

For guests who seem open to conversation, asking them if they are local or from out of town can provide an easy icebreaker. If they are local, a manager can share special events, loyalty programs or even follow-up with a discount code or gift card for their next visit. Learning if guests are at the restaurant for a special event like a birthday or anniversary, or attending a concert or play afterwards, can help managers with proactive ideas. Instead of “How does everything taste?” try: “Is your ribeye cooked to your liking?” or “Does that pan-roasted salmon taste as delicious as it smells?”

Going back to our group of four in the previous example, the manager learns that the group enjoyed their meal but unfortunately they’re stuffed, so they won’t be staying for dessert. He or she brings back a gift card to try the dessert on another visit. Sometimes capturing information means listening to guests and making an offer right away; other times managers can step away and think for a moment about how they can add value.

Tailor the Guest Experience

Don’t misinterpret: restaurant managers aren’t all of a sudden going to become mind readers, but there are little things they can do to customize each guest interaction that makes them feel special—and makes them want to return.

In a full-service restaurant, a manager might want to bring a complimentary dessert to a table where there was a delay in service or an error on the order. However, he or she recognizes that the guests are a family with small children. Mom might not want her already rambunctious children to have sugar so late in the evening. Instead of offering to the whole table, the manager asks her quietly if it would be alright to avoid the children overhearing.

In a quick-service restaurant, a manager can use a table touch to go above and beyond typical order-at-the-counter service norms by offering to refill a beverage, get more napkins or pre-bus empty trays.

The occasion or even the age of guests might also factor into how managers tailor the experience. The same restaurant might in one night serve a large group of very dressed-up high school students who are later attending the prom and also a very casually-dressed family with small children. The manager will likely act differently to demonstrate the importance of the prom versus the goal of helping a family have a successful meal out with children.

Table Touch Can Transform the Restaurant Experience

Today’s customers demand more than ever before from dining experiences. Restaurants have many tools in their arsenal to improve guest interactions and a manager’s table touch is just one of them. By paying attention to social cues, gathering information wherever they can and tailoring each guest’s experience, managers can increase the likelihood of a positive experience—and return visits down the line.