What is it about your favorite restaurant that always makes you come back? Is it the quality of the food? Reasonable prices? Maybe the location is incredibly convenient?

Sure, all of those things are important for running a successful restaurant, but they often don’t matter if one thing isn’t handled properly. Customer service. Think again about your favorite place to dine out and why you like it so much. The perceived relationship and meaningful customer service is probably near the top of your list.

Why is building relationships with customers important?

Developing strong customer relationships can make or break a small business. Especially when first starting out, providing curated and personalized service is one of the best, and possibly the only way, to compete against larger companies. And since they aren’t built overnight, nurturing customer relationships can be a core development goal that influences your marketing, employee training, and planning efforts.

Getting to know your customers helps inform your decision making. Yes, you had to identify a target market when developing your initial business plan. But that doesn’t mean you know everything about them and what will turn customers into loyal fans. You’re researching and testing what resonates while actively building a relationship that will lead to returning customers, positive word of mouth (both in-person and online) and overall increased sales.

5 ways to build strong customer relationships

In a time where take out and online delivery is the new normal, meaningful customer relationships can take a hit. But for restaurant owners, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and there are plenty of traditional and modern ways to provide excellent customer service. Here are five steps to build strong customer relationships.

1. Get to know your customers

In order to successfully develop a relationship with customers, you need to get to know them. You won’t have the opportunity to do so unless you actively engage and listen when they dine with you. You and your staff need to be welcoming, attentive, and communicative from when they first walk in the door all the way up to when they make their exit.

This first experience is vital for you and your customers. If your customers feel ignored or isolated, the likelihood that they will come back any time soon drops significantly. But, if you make a solid impression you can then carry over that positive experience into their next visit.

Returning visitors

Hopefully, that first visit made an impact and you start seeing first-time customers return. Now is when you start laying the groundwork for a business-customer relationship. This can simply be remembering their names, their favorite dishes, any special requests or even having the same server help them out. From there, it’s up to you to maintain that momentum and keep encouraging your team to make each visit better than the last. 

2. Exceed service expectations

Undersell and overdeliver should be your customer service mantra. That means setting realistic customer expectations in regards to wait times and service check-ins, only to blow them out of the water. Get food out earlier than you state, encourage servers to check back regularly to refill drinks and give updates, and never try to hide any delays if you can help it.

There’s a benefit to being forthright about complications, and providing remedies to any inconveniences. At the same time, you can use expected longer wait times or incorrect orders to provide even better customer service. Offer up a free appetizer or replacement dish, give free refills, or even a gift card to make up for the issue. Obviously, you don’t want to be giving out everything for free with every meal, but it at least allows you to save face and utilize less costly menu items to do so.

3. Reward their support

One way to make each subsequent visit better than the last is to reward your regular customers. This can be one-off discounts, free appetizers or gift cards provided at the discretion of your employees or you could officially establish a rewards program. This can be simple, like a punch card, or a bit more modern with an app, newsletter, or other digital components.

The benefit of creating a digital program is that you’re typically gathering email addresses, which allows you to open up a direct channel of communication. And with the right system, you can even track ordering trends to provide better incentives, discounts, and messaging based on specific customer intent. 

The type of rewards program you develop will fully depend on your budget and how much time you’re willing to invest in its implementation. It’s perfectly ok to start with a traditional stamp or punch card to see what kind of traction you get. If it leads to repeat visits and consistent additional sales, that may be the time to implement a more sophisticated system.

4. Communicate online

Your restaurant needs to have an online presence. A simple website, semi-active social channels, and updated business information are in many ways the bare minimum. And while spending time and resources on setting these things up may initially seem contrary to your business goals, the long-term benefits are worth the upfront cost.

From a customer service standpoint, each of these channels provides new opportunities to communicate directly with your customers. On social media, you can respond to comments and direct messages. On web listings and review sites like Yelp, you can answer questions and respond to reviews. But having a website is possibly the most vital and valuable component.

One benefit of having a website is the ability to connect reviews, social channels, digital ads any other online community directly to your site. This is also a great place to host online ordering, menus, and business information that you directly control and can link to. And like signing people up for a rewards program, this is also a great place to acquire customer emails.

Don’t discount email as a customer service tool

Email may be one of the best customer engagement tools available today. While many may claim it’s outdated, email still provides one of the only direct lines of personalized communication between you and your customers. You can send out special promotions, answer customer service requests, and even follow-up on negative reviews. 

Now managing email can become difficult if your rewards program or online signups take off. And if you’re managing online deliveries and customer service requests through the same inbox, organization and efficient management can quickly spiral out of control. In order to provide the best email-based customer service, it may be worth investing in a shared inbox management system like Outpost to get the most out of any email-based initiatives.

5. Accept customer feedback

Even with every precaution and push for excellent customer service, you’re going to have some bad customer interactions. The key here is to learn from them and turn criticism into a better experience for all of your customers. 

If a bad experience ends up online, don’t be offended or harshly respond. Instead, be sympathetic, ask questions, and look to rectify the situation. With the right response, tone, and possibly a little incentive, you can quickly turn a negative review into a satisfied customer. Now, if things get out of hand, try your best to move the conversation away from a public forum and into a direct message or email to keep things private.

Additionally, if you see positive reviews that also include suggestions, make sure you respond to them as well. It’s just as important to connect with your fans and take their feedback as it is to help those that had a less than stellar experience.

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What is the key to lasting customer relationships?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for developing lasting customer relationships. Instead, it’s a work in progress that fully depends on your business and customer needs. Really, the key is to keep testing, iterating, and developing consistent and quality customer service that your customers enjoy and can rely on.

Listen to your customers, encourage your staff to go above and beyond, and make sure to communicate with negative or positive feedback, both in-person and online. The more opportunities you provide for customers to engage with your restaurant, the more attuned you’ll be to their needs. And overall, the more likely you’ll be to turn one-time patrons into your biggest fans.

Editors’ Note: This article was originally written in 2011 and updated for 2020.

AvatarSusan Solovic

Susan Wilson Solovic is an award-winning entrepreneur and journalist, author of three best-selling books, multi-media personality and contributor to ABC News and other outlets, public speaker and attorney.