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Winning Business: Turning First-Timers into Loyal Customers

In the highly competitive food service industry, the best customers are the loyal ones that return to your restaurant again and again. And because you only get one chance to make a great initial impression, the importance of turning first-time guests into regular customers can't be overstated.

As much as 40% of restaurant revenue comes from repeat business, so keeping new guests coming back is critical for improving profit margins. Because starting a first-time customer program is a great way to win-over first-timers, we've put together a few strategies to help get you started.

Exceed expectations

This might seem obvious, but when new customers try your restaurant for the first time, all it takes is one bad experience to prevent them from ever coming back. A spilled sauce at the bottom of the delivery bag; a soggy sandwich, or an overcooked steak; the smallest mishap could be the difference between a one-and-doner and a customer for life.

With the list of options for food take-out and delivery in just about every genre growing every day, if the food disappoints there is a good chance that you will never see them again.

Exceeding expectations means checking special instructions carefully, making sure your packaging does its job, and, above all, paying extra close attention to every menu item that leaves your kitchen, treating every order like it’s going to be reviewed by a food critic, because, it is!

Go above and beyond

Just like the food, much of your customer’s first impression relies on the service they receive. That’s why it’s critical that you make sure your guests receive the best service whether they’re in your dining room or at home waiting for a delivery.

To ensure that your guests snag courteous, prompt, and friendly service, invest in your staff by providing paid training, solid guidance, and motivation to excel and go above and beyond the call of duty.

Reward guests

A great way to entice first-timers to come back is to offer an incentive like a coupon or gift certificate for a free item or discount to use during their next visit. Incentives could include a free appetizer, beverage, or dessert with the purchase of an entree, buy-one-get-one-free vouchers, or 50% off any menu item with the purchase of a second menu item.

Get personal

If offering free food and drink doesn’t fall within your budget, then a first-time customer program could be as simple as having your chef introduce themselves to new guests and having them ask how their meal was. This simple action makes your patrons feel welcomed and it shows them that you take customer satisfaction seriously.

Another way to make your patrons’ first dining experience personal and memorable is to train your front-of-house staff to ask questions to learn more about your new guests. Teaching your hostesses and servers to ask questions like "Is this your first time dining with us?” will help make them feel appreciated and help you learn more about their preferences to make future visits even better.

Tip: Create a system that helps your crew inform other staff members when a first-time customer visits. When a hostess or server is confronted with a new customer, they can notify the rest of the staff with a secret coded message like placing a red flag on the table.

Loyalty cards

Ultimately, the goal of a first-time customer program, whether it offers incentives or not, is to turn first-time visitors into returning customers. Another great way to encourage repeat business is to invite new customers to join your loyalty card program.

Make it even more appealing by automatically loading double the points so they’ll be encouraged to come back and redeem their rewards.

Guest cards

When new guests dine in your restaurant, it is an ideal time to get feedback and collect their contact information. Ask new customers to fill out guest cards. Not only are they a great tool for building your email list and collecting valuable information, but they provide a space for customers to offer comments, suggestions, and other feedback.

If possible, use this opportunity to connect with them on social media as well. Social media is a great tool for turning new customers into loyals. It’s the perfect spot for promoting specials, advertising events, and announcing new menu items.

Be responsive to negative reviews

Even if you’ve done all you can to impress your first-time guests, it’s inevitable that there will be an occasional less-than-happy customer.

If a dissatisfied new customer shares a less than desirable review, do your best to manage the situation as soon as possible. That means being aware of negative feedback by staying on top of all of your social media channels and review platforms and being quick to respond. Prompt responses to negative feedback just might be an easy way to salvage a tough first impression.

Take away

The biggest benefit of having a first-time customer program is that it will help you grow a loyal customer base. Since it’s not easy to capture a guest’s long-term loyalty in just one visit, it’s important to get them back in your doors a second time.

By having a first-time customer program in place, you’ll increase the chances of turning new guests into forever fans.

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By Eileen Strauss


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