If you were dropped off in the middle of the woods without a map and compass, your chances of making it back to civilization would be slim (particularly if you have never been out in the wilderness). An accurate map and a way to know if you’re going the right direction—like a compass—are critical.
The same goes for your restaurant. Standards (your map) and a way to know if you’re veering off course (feedback, which is your compass) are required if you want to stay in business year after year.
The best place to start you path to long-term success is to have a solid Cycle of Service Plan. When creating this plan, remember this: each step is just as important as the next, so don’t skip ahead to just the things you enjoy giving your attention. There are no shortcuts to success, but there is a fast track to failure. Give each step your full focus.
Energy is Everything
When asked what their restaurant sells, most operators would answer that they sell food and beverages. But that’s not really the case. If it was just about food and drinks people would stay home and enjoy those activities for a lower cost than dining out. What bars and restaurants sell is more emotional. It’s a memory. It’s a feeling. It’s all about the energy.
If you’ve ever walked into a restaurant when there are only one or two tables, you would say that the energy feels low. That same room during the dinner rush? The energy is high. What changed? Just the energy created by people inhabiting the space.
Read this: Stop Whining About Hiring
You can’t fully control the energy of guests. However, you can influence it by making sure your energy and that of your team is positive and highly charged. Outstanding operators go out of their way to manage the energy in their restaurants.
The Steps of Service Map
Like Dorothy’s advice in the Wizard of Oz, you too will be told to follow the Yellow Brick Road. The path to success in the bar and restaurant business can be found by following the journey that the guest goes through from the start to the end. Once again, skip a step or look for a shortcut and you risk being carried off by the Wicked Witch of the West’s minions!
Let’s keep score for you on each step. At the end we’ll total up your restaurant guest experience score and see where you are. This will be fun!
1. Online Reputation
Welcome to the brave new online world where your bar, nightclub, lounge and restaurant is constantly reviewed, liked, criticized, and photographed. How do you avoid this? You can’t if you want to be known in the world. Even restaurants that don’t exist (ever heard of _____ in London?) can rise to the top of social media. Is that fair for those venues that work every day to improve their online reputation? No, it’s a reflection of our social media-obsessed society.
Make sure your social media presence is as tight as it can be. Update menus online. Are the directions to your establishment on Google Maps accurate? Is your phone number easy to find? Have you been professional in your replies to nasty reviews or do you unleash Hell upon those who give you a one-star rating?
The scary thing about the internet is that it doesn’t sleep, nor does it forget. Even after you decide to remove the snide comment you made on a bad review, it suddenly reappears in the form of a screenshot taken and shared, tarnishing your online reputation. Ouch. Just keep in mind that there are no “take backs” to social media—the internet is written in stone and ink, not pencil.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = Your online reputation is stellar and you have raving fans! Your website is updated and all important contact information is easily accessible (that means at the top of the page).
+ 3 = You have a few things to clean up, such as updating your online menu and being a little nicer when replying to bad reviews.
+ 1 = You have a website…and that’s about it. You don’t reply to any comments or online reviews, and your social media presence makes people wonder if you’re still in business.
2. The Entrance
A guest is physically inside your bar or restaurant. What do they see? It’s always shocking to see a cool, hip, modern-looking restaurant online turn out to be a worn-own and poorly maintained property in person. Missing lights on the sign; weeds growing in the cracks on the sidewalk; trash that never made it into the dumpster and piled up on the side of the building; these all communicate one thing: you don’t care.
Many staff members, managers and owners tend to enter the venue from the back door. That can leave the front of the building susceptible to neglect. It’s time to walk the entire property and make a list of what needs a little TLC.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = Your property practically sings to guests, serenading them with a song about how you have your act together. Professional landscaping, well-lit parking, stand-out signage, and a welcoming entryway.
+ 3 = Maybe the parking lot needs some love. Your sign is nice, however that missing “S” and “Y” on “Sassy Café” makes your business an internet meme.
+ 1 = Norman Bates has a better-looking and more welcoming property than you do! The bird droppings that riddle the awning over the front door look like machine gun fire. Guests tend to drive into the parking lot and quickly drive away out of fear.
3. The Greeter
This is where the tone for the guest experience really starts to form. They might have some ideas from steps one and two. Now, it’s time to see if their perception is reality when they finally have face-to-face contact with someone on your team. Hold your breath.
Read this: What’s the Big Deal about Culture?
If you’ve done your duty as a leader then you have hired a friendly, warm, sincere, and people-oriented person as your first human contact point. If not, you just threw a person with no people skills who can deliver no more than the bear minimum of a greeting. They stand behind the host stand and hold onto it like someone is going to walk through the front door at any moment and steal it.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = Your greeter is upbeat and displays a genuine “I’m glad you’re here” attitude. They look professional and they don’t hide behind the host stand—they come out to greet guests like they would a friend in their home.
+ 3 = They smile on occasion, and at least they’re wearing what looks like a uniform. They ask how many are in the party for dinner, which is better than most. They think that seating guests is a race and often leave the elderly about 30 steps in their dust. They drop menus and mumble the names of servers before fleeing back to the safety of the host stand.
+ 1 = Once this person finally puts their phone down from texting their friends you get an eye roll and the standard number greeting: “Four?” They grab the menus with an exasperated sigh because guests interrupted their mission to get the latest gossip or check how many likes their latest selfie on Instagram has gotten. Your guests are a thorn in their side.
4. The Dining Room / Restrooms
Now the guest looks around your restaurant to assess the overall situation, taking in the big picture. Is the room well lit? Is the music pleasant or should they have brought earplugs? Is the temperature in the room too hot, too cold, or just right?
Does the décor match your brand? Picnic tables work in a BBQ concept, not so well for a fine-dining, haute cuisine venue. Are the colors in the room appealing or more like a Nightmare on Elm Street? When it comes to influencing the guest experience, the details matter.
The restrooms are a hot topic for many and tales of mismanaged restrooms are alive and well on social media. In other words, commit to making frequent checks on your restrooms a part of regular staff duties.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = The room matches your brand and reinforces the message; it sets the tone for the dining experience you’re creating. Music is right for the crowd and the volume doesn’t distract from the ambience. The tables are properly set and standardized. Restrooms are well stocked, clean, and might even have mints.
+ 3 = The velvet painting on the wall of five dogs playing cards doesn’t seem to fit the brand, however, you’re okay with it. The tables look more like they’re random placement than an actual plan. The carpet seems a little worn due to the clearly visible path everyone walks. Condiments are half full or missing. The restrooms are okay—trash probably need to be dumped and that graffiti on the wall should be painted over.
+ 1 = The room has a weird smell that nobody can figure out. Guests immediately stick their hands into something that could be honey spilled on the table when they sit. At least, they hope it’s just honey… There are old French fries under the booth in the corner. How is it obvious that the fries are old? There’s fuzzy mold growing on them. Guests likely question if eating here could result in a trip to the ER later. The restrooms are so bad that the women refuse to use them for fear on contracting something that would require antibiotics to cure.
5. The Team
After the greeting at the door, this is your next chance to impress your guests. This is a critical guest interaction point (CGIP) that requires your full attention. Handle it professionally and you’ll be well on your way to getting a second visit from a first-time guest. But remember, your goal is getting a third visit from guests. If your team blows this step, count on being less than thrilled with your online reviews (spoiler alert: they won’t be good).
Read this: The Problem with Teamwork
You want your team to turn on the charm and bring the high energy. Up until now they’ve had little interaction with your guests (other than the greeter), so make sure you only have A-level players in the game.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = Your team greets each table with an authentic, sincere welcome: eye contact and a smile. Recommendations are made and orders are repeated back for clarity. The staff is calm, cool, collected, and most importantly, working as a team.
+ 3 = They look at your guests but you’re not sure if they’re happy to see them or not. When a guest inquires about a particular item, some team members reply with a lackluster, “It’s good.” They drop things off in a timely manner yet always seem to forget to fulfill at least one guest request.
+ 1 = The staff refuses to look guests in their eyes, perhaps out of fear that their spirit animal will be stolen (hey, it could happen). They wipe their noses with their fingers while writing down orders, leading your guests to wonder if they have a severe cold or a drug problem. When a guest makes a special request, they get an eye roll and something said under their breath that might have been an insult directed toward their mother.
6. Food & Beverage
The moment of truth! This is what your guests braved traffic and weather for! Drop the ball here and it’s going to be a long night; nail it and you have a winning shot of converting them into repeat guests and loyal fans of your brand.
The realization you must understand at this point is that you’re six steps into the guest experience and guests are just now trying your food and beverage! If you haven’t been on your A-game by now, your food and drinks better be incredible. I’m talking life-changing great!
Here, the best plan is to focus on the fundamentals. Hot food hot. Cold food cold. Drinks properly built correctly and garnished well. Wine served in the correct glass. Beer served in beer-clean glasses.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = If they smile and reach for their phone to take a picture of the food and drinks, you’re in the Promised Land! People take pictures of moments they want to remember and share, so when they pull out their phones, you’ve got got them.
+ 3 = The guests are smiling and look happy. Nothing bad about happy guests. Happy is good, and if good is what you’re aiming for, mission accomplished.
+ 1 = If your guests are taking pictures and laughing at the same time, this is likely a bad thing! What causes this is your food and drinks looking like train wrecks. The drinks are undrinkable and usually barely consumed. They don’t ask for leftovers to be boxed up, and they definitely don’t look happy.
7. The Check-Back
Their server dropped off the food and beverages. Now it’s time to check in and see if your guests’ experience matches what you intended. The last thing you want to do is wait too long. Check-backs are like a lot of things in life: timing is everything.
Please, for the love of all that is sacred, ask guests a specific and well-thought-out question that goes beyond the standard “How’s everything?”
Everything is always “fine” or “good.” You want to search for real emotional responses. “Wow.” “Amazing.” “Incredible.” These are the words you want to hear from your guests. If you aren’t hearing them, keep working on steps 1 through 6.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = Your servers ask specific questions about guest selections, such as “Is the ribeye steak cooked to your liking?” Managers stop by to make conversation and introduce themselves. Any additional needs are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
+ 3 = Your servers ask standard, boring questions, like “How’s everything?” At least they ask, right? But you don’t put big points on the board by being average. Additional requests for refills or extra sauce are delivered within 10 minutes, just enough time for their food to get cold.
+ 1 = Check-back? After your servers drop off orders they become ghosts! The guests can’t seem to find their servers. When they ask another staff member for something, guests are told they’re not in their section. No management presence is visible on the floor, but guests can hear them yelling at the staff from the back. The word “idiots” is used often.
8. The Cash-Out
Time to rake in the money! It’s also time to see if your servers’ hard work results in good tips. The word tip is said to stand for “To Insure Prompt Service.” That’s nice. A little outdated, but nice. Today, many assume that tipping is required even though it’s not. That might get a few people up in arms and start a debate, and that would be good.
We need to talk about what defines great service and what makes up good service, about what’s expected and what goes beyond guest expectations. When your servers go beyond the average, they earn a great tip. When they do the bare minimum, they get squat. Good service is the standard today. Good gets a server 10 to 15 percent, if they’re lucky. Outstanding tends to be rewarded with 20 to 25 percent (or more) in gratuity.
If you and your staff make my experience a positive and memorable one, you’ll be rewarded 99 percent of the time. Yes, there are some people who are just bad tippers and no life-changing guest experience will make up for people who just don’t get it. No reason to get upset because it’s more a reflection of who they are as humans than a reflection of your service.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = Checks are dropped with a sincere smile, eye contact, guest names, and an invite to return. Your servers have the confidence and skills to trust that their attention to detail (combined with the stellar work from the kitchen and bar) will bring home the bacon! Servers return promptly with the change or credit card slip and even bring a mint or candy to say thanks. Your team continues to deliver great service even after this step of guest interaction. Guests don’t feel pressed to leave.
+ 3 = Servers drop checks after they’ve been asked to do so. They grab credit cards or cash as soon as they see them on the table. Actually, your servers tend to stare at guests after they’ve dropped checks, making them feel rushed to pay and leave. Change is brought back with a quick smile and a “Thanks.” Water glasses are empty and the grandfather looks parched, but your servers avoid the table so your guests get going.
+ 1 = Your guests track down the manager after vain attempts to get the check from their servers. They missed the movie they wanted to go see and now are in a bad mood. When the check is finally dropped, the manager or server stands there, waiting for them to break out their wallets. Nothing is said, the bill and method of payment are just grabbed from the table. When credit card slips are returned, pens aren’t provided. When guests pay with cash, incorrect change is often delivered.
9. The Farewell
Time to say goodbye. Here’s where the entire team needs to get together to ensure that guest energy is higher than it was upon arrival. The team must gang up to send positive energy towards the guests as they’re leaving. You can deliver an exceptional guest experience during steps 1 through 8 yet drop the ball on this one.
Read this: Are You a Red Ocean or Blue Ocean Operator?
There’s a little-known psychological term called “the recency effect” that basically says we tend to remember or place more emphasis on the last event we experience. That’s good to know if you want to score a few extra points at the end of the guest experience.
Score Your Business
+ 5 = At least three people on your team give a warm and sincere thank you or goodbye to your guests as they leave. The greeter opens the door for departing guests. The manager or you personally says something positive to the guests, encouraging them to return. Someone on the team offers to carry their to-go bag to the car. A team member offers to walk guests to their cars with an umbrella when it’s raining.
+ 3 = Someone says goodbye, although they fail to make eye contact. The manager smiles at the departing guests, they just don’t say anything. The server asks if a guest needs assistance if they’re struggling with their to-go bag, yet doesn’t jump in to help.
+ 1 = Guests receive a non-verbal head nod from the greeter. Guests feel like they’re not really appreciated and leave with a dazed and confused look.
So, how did you do?
Tally up your Steps of Service Score
45 (A+): You've created a rock star, guest-oriented culture! You make sure every touch point is carefully examined and refined. You provide consistent training every day and invest in your team by providing them with resources to make them better at their jobs. You also invest in improving yourself to be the leader they deserve. Your restaurant is in that rare 5-percent space I consider to be outstanding.
36-44 (B): You’re working hard to improve. You have a solid guest experience and you’re in the middle of the market. You’re seen as an innovator and have a steady stream of regulars.
27-35 (C): You have good days and bad days when it comes to your guest experience. Each day is exciting because you never know which way it’s going to go. The team was trained but without constant enforcement of the standards they tend to backslide to bad habits. You’re average and fight to maintain your share of the market.
18-26 (D): You get more complaints than compliments. Every day is a struggle to maintain a positive attitude and keep team morale in a healthy place. It’s more like every person for themselves than everybody working together.
9-17 (F): Your brand is destined to crash and burn. However, you just might be in denial so badly that you can’t see it. You survive on first-time guests who stumble upon your bar or restaurant. Repeat guests are few and far between. Your online reviews are a collection of bad times, bad food, and memes of a grouchy cat.
Treat every guest interaction and every touch point along this Service Map like it’s game seven in the NBA Championship. You either play all-in and win or you phone it in and lose—that’s the difference between outstanding venues and the rest. Be honest about where your score is and take immediate corrective action to improve it.