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“You hooked me– now why did you let me go?”

By: Mason Harris

Several weeks ago I received a coupon/gift certificate (what’s the difference between them again?) in the mail. It was on the generous side - $25 off a meal at a restaurant less than 10 miles from my home. I have been to this restaurant before, actually twice in a couple of years. Not being one to pass up on what was roughly a free steak, my wife and I went to the restaurant for dinner. Another couple from the neighborhood that had also received the same offer joined us.

This restaurant is part of a collection of restaurants owned by the same company. It does an admirable, although far from perfect job, in my opinion, of attempting to create loyalty among its diners.

The atmosphere: a French bistro. I haven’t been to Paris yet because I prefer understanding the insults directed at me by the locals, like in my former hometown of New York. Anyway, the restaurant succeeds in creating what I imagine is a “real bistro.” It works for me. So let’s give this location a good mark on atmosphere.

The service: very good, attentive, knowledgeable, and friendly. Our waiter was nicely outfitted, and he properly sold us wine and other alcohol with our meals. The alcohol alone cost us almost as much as the two $25 certificates.

The food: French food is not my personal favorite, since there is so much emphasis on various sauces. However, the food was very good, and all of our entrees, ranging from steak to fresh fish, were enjoyable. I’d go into more detail, but I’m not a chef or a food critic, I’m an educator!

Let’s review: nice atmosphere, good service, and good food. They have created an enjoyable dining experience, so I should be going back soon, right? Well…I honestly don’t know. Frankly, most restaurants today are disciplined enough to provide good service and food. In regard to atmosphere, it’s clearly important, but it is more personal and subjective than good food or service. We would typically agree if service is inattentive and something doesn’t taste right, but we could reasonably expect some disagreement over whether the “atmosphere” is good. So where some restaurateurs might fail an individual diner’s preference for atmosphere, there is no disputing that good food and service are universally recognized, and are also minimal expectations for most, if not all diners. In other words, if you provide good food and service, you’re just like almost everyone else. You need something extra to successfully differentiate yourself from the competition.

I know I’ll go back to this French bistro sometime because I have a positive memory of the restaurant and meal that I enjoyed. The problem is that when considering where to dine, neither my wife nor I think of this restaurant. Although they captured my attention with the coupon, they missed a golden opportunity to continue converting me into a friend.

Before I explain why, I have a question to ask. I’ll be in your area and would like to take you to lunch. Do you have any suggestions on where we should go? (Note: If you are a restaurateur you can choose any restaurant but your own!) Got a restaurant in mind? Which restaurant is it? Oh - good choice, but I recently ate there. Do you have another suggestion? Great, I’ve heard of it but have never been there.

The restaurants that you thought of are “top-of-mind.” It’s as simple as that. Every restaurant customer has his or her favorites, his or her own personal top-of-mind. This location at the top of the customer’s preferences is every business owner’s dream, whether the business is retail, fashion, cosmetics, home appliances, or restaurants. Your restaurant is undoubtedly top-of-mind to some minority of your total restaurant customer base, and you must protect your position with these loyal friends (customers) from the competition. Your mission is to become top-of-mind to an increasing percentage of your total customers. (By the way, this mission never ends.)

Oh…in regard to that lunch date, we’ll have to make it another time. My plans have changed, but I appreciate your restaurant suggestions.

Let’s go back to the French Bistro. This meal, as pleasant as it was, is not enough to replace my top-of-mind restaurants. That typically doesn’t occur with a single visit - unless the meal and atmosphere are truly unforgettably great. (Lots of restaurants are unforgettable, but usually for the wrong reasons. Another column maybe?) I eat out over 400 times a year. It takes a lot of effort to impress me, and more importantly, to get me to rearrange my own top-of-mind restaurants.

Ironically, this restaurant has a point-based Frequent Diner program, but the waiter never mentioned it, so that opportunity was wasted. In my follow-up research, I’ve learned there is a cost to join this program, so I probably would’ve passed on it anyway. (Imagine that – I pay you for the privilege of marketing to me!) Of course, I could wait for another $25 coupon to arrive in the mail; we know that was effective at bringing me in – once. But it was also expensive to the restaurant.

So what could this restaurant do, and you as well, to begin the process of turning me into a more frequent customer? How do you go about making your restaurant, instead of your competition’s, a customer’s “top-of-mind” choice?

There are solutions that work – so don’t give up hope. In regard to this dining experience, I expect no regular follow-up reminders of how I enjoyed the atmosphere, service and food at this French bistro. C’est dommage.

Mason Harris of Robin Technologies, Inc., offers the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM) endorsed YouGotMeals permission-based email marketing program for restaurants. A frequent speaker on marketing and loyalty programs, Mason is also writing a book specifically for restaurant owners and managers. Feel free to share your questions, comments, and experiences related to this column, restaurant marketing, and diner loyalty with Mason via email at mharris@yougotmeals.com, or sign up for his e-newsletter at www.yougotmeals.com.

©Robin Technologies, Inc. 2004

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