New research shows importance of personalised first impressions

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We’ve all had that moment – you set foot into a bar or restaurant and, within seconds, feel inspired and at home. This is the feeling of stepping into a fantastic venue, one which speaks to your personality and sparks your interest, yet puts you immediately at ease. Most of us have also experienced the polar opposite – the moment of walking into an establishment and feeling tense, uncomfortable, out of place. Whether the restaurant feels uncontrollably busy, the waiters leave you standing by the entrance for far too long, or you simply don’t receive a warm welcome, the first few minutes you spend in a bar or restaurant can be incredibly persuasive in formulating your attitude towards the venue in question.

This is what we all know as the first impression. Throughout my career, I’ve seen big brands dedicate enormous focus to this element – attempting to steer consumers’ preliminary reactions to their products or concept through everything from clever design to elaborate marketing campaigns. But while no-one would deny the importance of a chic interior or a delicious cooking scent in welcoming customers walking through the door, recent research suggests that the influence of first impressions extends far beyond this.

A study conducted by HGEM has found that a huge 79 per cent of diners are deterred from making a return visit to a food outlet if they received a poor welcome. This is hardly surprising, after all, who wants to deal with that sour-faced waiter more than once? No matter how good the food, eating out at a restaurant with poor service can leave a nasty taste in one’s mouth. What is surprising however, is the specificity of what diners are now looking for from that initial welcome. Steven Pike, managing director of HGEM, explains:

“While personalisation has been gaining popularity recently in the context of products, it will always be important in a service context and particularly as diners look for a move from a routine or disingenuous greeting to a sincere and personalised welcome.”

Personalisation is certainly the order of the day, evident everywhere from special dietary requirement menus to curated coffees, but what exactly does a personalised welcome entail? Eat Out magazine suggests that this may include creating additional conversation or going above and beyond the role requirements, but with psychologists from Princeton University estimating that our very first impressions are formed in around one tenth of a second, there is clearly more that restaurants and bars can be doing to wow diners, literally the second customers step over the threshold.

Undeniably, the first thing employees can do to score a good impression is to smile. No customer should be left hovering as they wait for a table and waiters rush past them oblivious. Restaurant Voice recommends that restaurants encourage staff to establish a CPI – or a ‘common point of interest’. They say, “The most effective way to discover the CPI is by asking open ended questions allowing the guests to share a little bit of who they are.” Once this has been achieved, waiting staff can use what they’ve learned about the customers to create further conversation, making them feel like more than just another set of covers. We all want to have our individualism recognised, and dining out is no exception.

Whilst a warm welcome is paramount, transparency remains key. Every interaction between staff and customer must be consciously friendly and helpful, but it must also be genuine and informative. Consumers are becoming more adventurous, and restaurants and bars must guide them in their culinary explorations. As DB Squared explains:

“For restaurants that specialize in certain types of foods that might not be familiar to first-time customers, accurately describing menu items in a way can also be key in helping them make a selection on their first visit that makes them want to come back a second time.”

This is particularly important today, with increasing numbers of guests looking to have their every need catered to. Have waiting staff scope out any special requirements and individual requests early on, to put guests at ease. Bringing over an allergen and substitute menu shortly after guests arrive will save individuals from having to worry about causing delays when their group is ordering, or wondering whether they will be able to enjoy that dish they have their eye on.

Another way of enhancing this element of ‘special service’ is to offer personalisation options in your restaurant or bar’s offerings from the very first transaction. Be it a choice of taster plates or the option to tailor your own cocktail, setting a standard for customisation will immediately convey to customers that yours is an establishment that values the preferences of its customers above all else.

But are these in-house steps enough? With the plethora of social media and advertising platforms available to businesses, consumers will often encounter a representation of your bar or restaurant before they even visit. Every bar and restaurant should have a mobile-friendly website that is attractive and in-keeping with the brand’s ethos. Social media is also a brilliant tool for crafting positive first impressions. Imagine a potential customer is browsing for posts tagged ‘restaurants Chelsea’ on Instagram. If your business fits this brief, you want it to be visible. But if all that prospective guests can see is poorly-lit shots from previous customers, they might not be particularly motivated to visit. Ensuring that you or a trusted agency runs your social media accounts, and updates them with enticing imagery and information is one easy way of ensuring a positive first impression before guests arrive, and of attracting more customers to your venue in the first place.

Of course, there are countless elements at play in creating a good impression, from design to aromas, lighting to service and even the style of your menu covers. However, to make a good impression last, the level of attentiveness guests receive must be maintained throughout their visit. Have your resident mixologist ask your guest for their opinion on the bespoke cocktail they created to taste or get your head chef to visit each table before they depart, discussing the meal and taking praise. The simple act of asking a customer for their opinion makes them feel respected and will make them want to revisit in the future to see if that flavour combination made in their honour becomes a menu staple. Steps like these will show guests that the efforts you are taking to make them feel welcome are not purely commercial, but personal, making a good first impression a lasting one.