Thursday, August 11, 2011

Your Table is Ready

Forgive me if this is old news but I had a terrific first time experience at a local restaurant last Saturday night. After seeing Cowboys and Aliens, a most entertaining movie by the way, we strolled over to a nearby restaurant to have dinner. At the hostess station I requested a table for two. It is a popular place and it was a Saturday night, so no surprise when we were advised there would be a wait. When asked for my name to be added to her queue, I gave her "Joe P" my usual abbreviated moniker. It allows the staff to avoid the embarrassment of trying to spell my last name or pronounce it when they are ready to call out for me.

But this time I was also asked for my cell phone number. If you read my columns, you know I use Google Voice and so I see no risk or danger in releasing my number. Without a thought I rattled it off and the young lady punched it into the terminal at her station.

As we stepped to the side I felt that familiar and all too frequent vibration in my pocket that signals a text, e-mail or phone call coming in. Pulling out my EVO and glancing at the screen I saw a text informing me the restaurant would text me when my table was ready. It came from a service called HostConcepts which I later learned offers a suite of restaurant management applications including this neat customer notification system.

How many times have you stood a few feet away in the lineup of anxious, hungry and impatient people, one of whom is always at the desk asking how much longer will it be? How often have you sat shoulder to shoulder on that long wooden bench, hoping the next name called is yours? Have you ever walked away for five to ten minutes, then returned to wait ten or fifteen more, only to find out they already called your name and you missed it! This was so much better, giving us the freedom to wander around without that fear.

Just a few minutes later my phone was vibrating again with the brief message, "Joe P, your table is ready." It directed me to see the receptionist immediately and suggested I text back in case my plans had changed and I was no longer coming.

This is technology innovation at its best. Who doesn't carry a cell phone today? Who doesn't text? So why not leverage the availability of this nearly universal medium to enhance the customer experience, making it infinitely more convenient for customers waiting for their table. No one is bellowing out your name hoping you are still within ear shot or setting off that electronic gypsy disk that vibrates and blinks like the marquis at the old Bijou theater. Customers are free to use the time they have to wait to do anything they choose, secure in the knowledge they will not miss out.

Moreover, from the restaurants perspective you have a simple system that provides better customer service. There is no longer a need to keep a paper list with names scratched out as people are seated.  The system also provides all the metrics you could ever want like the number of turns, average wait times, cancellations and no shows. As a bonus you now have customer cell phone numbers in your database which can be used in loyalty or other marketing programs.

Today, there are restaurants using iPads for wine list applications and others expanding to the full menu. I imagine some will allow you to place your order. Ultimately you will be paying the check using the tablet or, like my Starbucks experience, another smart phone application.

Smart phones and tablets are changing the complexion of the restaurant business. Beyond the in-store, operational impact, there are a number of social networks like Yelp also changing the rules of the game. But we'll save that discussion for another time.

Waiter, check please.

Captain Joe

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