We all know the importance of the first impression and how we’re impacted by someone’s appearance, demeanor and general interaction with us. Crowd review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have built companies that allow folks to vent their praises and critiques of service providers. Much of the commentary on these sites is about first impressions. There are several critical moments when a guest experiences their first impression of a restaurant: at the valet (if the restaurant has one), the physical appearance of the building and landscaping, and the interaction with the first employee they meet.
The host in a restaurant owns this early interaction and it can make or break the entire visit.
- Wrong Person – When we hire a host we like to hire for “5 second likability.” In other words, if we don’t naturally like you within 5 seconds, there is a high probability that the guests won’t either. A lot goes into likeability, but generally speaking we like to hire for “likable”. When a manager puts a person who isn’t likeable in a host position, they are essentially kicking-off every guest’s dining experience with someone who never quite connects with the guest. The host may or may not get the job done efficiently and effectively, but to the guest, that’s all they’re doing. The guest will think, “their job is to manage my arrival and take me to a table” and that’s all they get. Hiring “likable” people gives the restaurant a chance to start off with a positive tone that can pre-emptively smooth future issues. We are much more likely to forgive a longer greet time if we’ve just met a polite and friendly host.
- No Eye Contact, No Smiling – Once we’ve hired folks that give us a good feeling, we train them on how to provide a positive early interaction. Eye contact is crucial. We all realize this when we meet someone with “smiling eyes” or that seems kind. Of course, we usually have to back into why we make this judgment, but we don’t have to think about it very long when we meet a friendly person. When a host makes eye contact and smiles, it sets the tone for the interaction. The host has communicated, “I’m not dangerous. I’m an employee that is here to serve you so no, we are not going to mate and I’m at your service”.
- Wrong First Words, Cold Delivery – Have you ever walked into a restaurant to be greeted with “…2? …inside or out? …right this way”? Or how about when two hosts, or a host and a server, or a host and a manager are having a conversation at the counter and you feel like you’re interrupting because the host sheepishly disengages from their personal conversation and begins the conversation dead-eyed? The first thing we train hosts to say is some version of “Hello!” Hello, accompanied by a sincere smile and eye contact, is wildly contagious. It usually forces the person to smile back. It says, “I like you” and “I’m at your service”. Too often a wait staff and front desk team forgets – or was likely never trained – to understand the principle of “The Servant is the Master”. English valets/butlers understand this principle. The goal of anyone in the service industry is to make the guests feel like royalty… to make them feel special… not to assert our equivalence to them. If a guest exudes an attitude that says, “I’m better than you” – GREAT! You got em. They’re going to pay you handsomely to help them maintain that sentiment. By subordinating to the guest through a sincere desire to care for them and to lead through service, the host controls a great deal of the restaurant’s reputation. Oh… and anyone at the front desk needs to have a very good reason to be there. Because your host staff is so likeable (because you hired that way) everyone wants to be around them including other employees. So control employee access to the front desk.
- Bad Reaction to Table Change Requests – Not every table in the restaurant is a “good” table. Some seats are near the kitchen or the restroom or a drafty door. Sometimes the table is fine but the crying baby next to the target table is not going to fly with the empty-nesters (aka baby-haters) who are splurging on a night out. When a guest says, “I don’t really like this table, can we sit over there?” the host needs to realize a couple of things: first, the relationship has just potentially gone sour because the guest now no longer trusts the host to care for them. They may have waited tables in college so they probably get that there is a rotation, but “fair seating rotation” is subordinate to MY comfort as a guest and I’m paying a premium for the food and tipping for service. Second, the host will not win a battle no matter how sour they make their face or how they try to educate the guest. When a guest disagrees with a table selection we coach them to treat it like another opportunity to win a friend. They’re going to end up giving the guest what they want anyway so why not gush over them. “Of course! I have this table here or perhaps an even better one over by the window… does that work?” There should be more eye contact, more smiling, and a pause to carry on a brief conversation with the guest as you try to get them what they want. If a particular table is reserved, they should just say so but quickly offer an equivalent alternative. We like to avoid these issues on the front end by programming the seating sequence to seat the “best available table” first so when a guest is taken to a table next to the kitchen, there are no other tables left. We rank our tables so everyone (servers included) knows which tables will be seated first and last. We coach hosts to NEVER get their licks in by making a face or pausing uncomfortably. Re-engage the guest with eye contact and a smile and start talking. Be instantly concerned that the guest is not happy and endeavor to please them… not to punish them for ruining their seating strategy.
- Drop-and-Go – Part of a host’s job is to escort guests to their table. So often hosts outrun guests to the table, “deal” the menus to the place settings while the guest is standing and waiting, then march back to the front desk… with no direction, no parting words, no smile, no eye contact, no pulling chairs out (couple that with eye rolling when a guest disputes a table choice and voila!… there is no way that Yelp review is going to come out in the restaurant’s favor). We encourage the host to be gracious… to smile and politely ask guests to follow them. We like them to engage lightly in conversation with the lead person in the party. This ensures that the host matches the guest’s pace and not the other way around. We like hosts to make eye contact with the matriarch of the party (chivalry… sorry… not dead yet) to non-verbally discover which seat they will choose, and then pull that seat out for that guest. Continue pulling out seats until the last guest is seated and THEN distribute menu from the guest’s right side from the host’s right hand. Finally, most importantly, the host should plant their feet in a server position and address the group with eye contact and a big smile, “I hope you enjoy your evening”.
- No Farewell – The first and last person the guest sees in a restaurant is the host. Often, towards the end of the evening, the rush is over and the hosts are more relaxed and sometimes nursing sore feet… so they let their guard down and neglect the importance of punctuating the experience with a kind word. The same rules apply to the farewell: eye contact, smile, and a genuine hope that everything went well. If the evening didn’t go well at the table, the guest may take the opportunity to vent… and by providing the familiar/ friendly face to vent to, it can head off negative online ratings. If the server was surly or the steak was overcooked, a great last impression coupled with a great first impression can neutralize the issues and reset the guest’s intent to return. Again, we train hosts to assume that there may have been something negative about the experience that their farewell must overcome. If everything has been fabulous, the kind departing interaction only fuels return visits and positive endorsements.
These opportunities and solutions apply to restaurants from Peter Luger’s to Cheesecake Factory, from Grammercy Tavern to Red Lobster, from The Ritz Carlton to Dick’s Last Resort. Gracious service begins and ends with sincerity and the host is the beginning and end of a guest’s experience.
Ray Camillo – CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting