Tech tools give restaurant patrons the personal touch

Restaurant reservations systems such as OpenTable and Yelp Reservations may be one of the biggest areas where technology is working to help restaurants win new customers and build a bigger roster of loyal regulars. The services offer tools that help eateries customize the experience and add a personal touch to each interaction with a patron..

When Kristi Quick first began working in restaurants as a teen, reservations and notes on customers’ likes and dislikes were kept with paper and pen and on laminated pages edited with grease pencils.

Today, the general manager of Jax Fish House Lodo in Denver and her staff do it all on iPads, using Yelp Reservations systems to keep detailed notes from customer comments, comment cards and posts patrons put up on the system.

“Now it’s all online and we can leave our own guest notes and we don’t have to worry about scraps of paper and reading the handwriting or dealing with smeared pencil marks,” she said.

Systems such as Yelp Reservations and OpenTable give eateries a web-based way to track everything from patrons’ birthdays and anniversaries to their wine and dessert preferences, storing information hosts and servers can pull up on an iPad and use to make a visit more memorable and foster or reinforce loyalty.

“The birthday reward is the most popular and is used over and over again because it is effective,” said Farrell Hudzik, managing director of Accenture Interactive’s Global Loyalty and Rewards practice. “It allows you to have an interaction on that day that allows you to have a proactive conversation over the month of your birthday and is something that has historically been very effective with regard to incenting engagement.”

The systems also allow restaurants to offer perks for patrons who make a reservation. Jax Fish House offers customers a free order of peel-and-eat shrimp when they check in via the Yelp app, Quick said.

Reservations systems also provide a place for negative feedback, which can help a restaurant quickly turn things around if a visit goes awry. Quick responds to customer reviews, and can make a personalized offer based on the feedback included in the review.

Small things that could turn off a customer can be quickly addressed, Quick said. If a guest comments that there were too many potatoes in the chowder, for example, next time around the server will be armed with the information and able to offer a potato-free bowl of the soup, she said.

Jax Fish House parent company, The Big Red F Restaurant Group, recently changed all 12 of its restaurants over from OpenTable to Yelp Reservations, after evaluating the costs and benefits involved, said Marketing Director Dana Query.

It took a little while to make sure customers switched over and the company reached out via e-mail and created a pop-up on the website to make sure guests learned of it and were able to make reservations, she said.

Keeping up with customer notes is a team effort and staffers use iPads to update information in real time.  The process can be time-consuming, but using online reservation services eliminates much of the staff time that used to be taken up with phone reservations. Additionally, guests can book a table anytime -- they’re not dependent on the restaurant being open or waiting for a phone message to be returned.

Each reservation system comes with its own benefits, drawbacks and cost structures, Quick said.

“Every restaurant has to decide for itself if it’s worth it, if you’re able to garner more sales.”

While reservations systems and other tech-driven changes to the business may still seem relatively new to veteran operators, they’ve quickly become tools of the trade to younger employees.

“Tonight our internet service was down, and when your internet service is down you can’t access your online reservations and notes,” Quick said. “When that happens we go back to the old pen and paper way.”

It was a learning experience for some millennial staffers.

“They were asking ‘What do we do? Can we open?’”

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