Customers: What can businesses realistically expect?

I wrote this blog over a week ago and forgot to publish it – and I’m glad I did, because since I wrote it a shed load of snow fell onto the United Kingdom and thousands of restaurants, takeaways and cafes across the country have been left standing, wondering: where have all our customers gone? So I’ve decided to rewrite it in light of recent events. But, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

My first blog post started when chef Mark Greenaway introduced a new policy for no shows, intending to charge them £50 a head, which last week had the whole internet offering their opinion about whether this is really fair, or not. Fast forward just one week and millions of people up and down the country have had to change their plans, at the last minute, due to the inclement weather. Luckily, Mark Greenaway implemented his policy last week so he will not have been feeling the pinch at £50 a head. But his competitors will have been.

I’ve seen so many restaurateurs post about how “devastating” this week has been for their business. We ate lunch in a popular local restaurant today – out of a potential 80 covers restaurant, we were the only two in, for two hours.

So, when it comes to customers, what can businesses really expect?

Many businesses open their doors every day without any expectation of paying customers. Retailers, for instance, take a gamble that there will be sufficient passers by to keep them going. Cafes too. Hotels are a little bit different. Customers really want to be sure that there’s a bed there for them when they arrive, so there’s a trade off: they are willing to part with cash, up front, in return for a guaranteed room for the night.

But during the events of the last few wintery days, all gloves have been off. Millions of customers simply changed their plans.

If ever there was an argument for customers being THE most important success factor for your business, here it is, and as simple as we can make it: without customers, you don’t have a business.

And if your margins are extremely tight (and whose aren’t) a few days of unexpected loss of all customers could be nothing short of devastating.

Which brings me back to the first scenario – what happens when your customers book, but don’t turn up? Restaurants with high demand have always taken bookings but now, it seems, customers are “hedging their bets” and booking multiple restaurants so they can decide on the night.

If that is the case, then the restaurant really should be charging them for a no show. It would seem the customer is deliberately intending to let them, or another restaurant they have booked for the same time, down. It’s a bit like booking two shows at two theatres and then only going to one. However, throw in a flurry of snow and it becomes complicated. The weather is outwith the customer’s control. It’s outwith everyone’s control, actually.

So why this is happening? Why are customers covering their bases with multiple restaurant bookings?

The answer is, I believe, in how restaurants are deciding to manage their capacity. On a recent trip to Edinburgh, my husband and I made an attempt to eat in no less than 7 separate restaurants. We gave up in the end and drove home, some 45 miles away, and picked up a takeaway on the way home. Many were half empty, all asked if we “had a booking”. We were not the only ones in the queue with the same problem. You see, they had the capacity to serve us, they just chose not to, because they had a pre-existing booking (who, we are led to believe, have a high propensity not to show up).

Perhaps what’s really out of line here is the restaurant industry’s expectations that their establishments should be booked up months in advance in order to provide them with the security of knowing someone’s going to eat there in July. Moreover they are turning customers away, every single night, because of this policy. That’s a bit arbitrary, isn’t it??

If the customer is always right, how come the restaurants are getting it so wrong?

This weekend, amidst the weather chaos, I heard the plea of our local restaurateurs and headed out in the snow to “deliberately” eat lunch out. We like that restaurant, we know they are having a bad week, and we wanted to help. Lunch was also rather delicious. And they were extremely grateful that we had come in. It’s a win/win situation for us both!

So here’s an idea: Instead of charging customers who don’t show, how about not having a booking system at all and serving up delicious food to those who are literally standing on your doorstep and wanting to be fed. Or why not change your booking policy to only booking out 50% of your restaurant on any given night so you have additional capacity to serve those who simply had a notion that they fancied going out for dinner that night and chose you?

Sadly, on more than one occasion this year, I’ve left several establishments who are half empty but I can’t get a table because I don’t have a booking. I missed the memo that said if I want to eat out, I must plan weeks ahead. Cafes don’t really have this problem. They are either full or not and, as a customer, I accept that.

So I challenge the assumption that customers are just being very, very naughty and should be punished for suddenly deciding they really just fancied a curry rather than a steak tartare. If they are not turning up to a pre-arranged date, the chances are there’s another problem at play – maybe your food wasn’t good enough to entice them back, or your location isn’t the easiest to get to, or your service was poor, or (worse) because you’re all booked up you’ve done no marketing for 6 months and they’ve forgotten about you.

Chuck out the booking list, open your doors and take a chance. You might find that when you most need it, that customer loyalty you’ve built up over the years will pay for itself in dividends when it snows.