Restaurant Reservations - Technology v Human: More than just a reservationist.
By Paul Sarlas
Monday, 19th June 2017

In an era of online reservations, many people continue to connect by phone to a restaurant to make a reservation; Be it a way to ensure they get that special request, or perhaps the ease of dialling from a google search when on the move, rather than going through the whole online process, whichever the case, the day of the reservationists in your restaurant is not over yet.

Let’s get this straight. I am not saying that you should remove your online bookings system, however I do believe a restaurant call centre or reservationist can be a beneficial part to your business model. I am all for new technology and am one of those guys that use all my tech toys everywhere and anywhere it can make my life more efficient.

But I do see the advantages in having a top performing reservationist in your organisation. Your online booking system has its limitations and a reservationist is more than a person who takes bookings. Therefore, moving completely to a digital bookings option could mean a loss of potential customers.

Of course, there are many positives to an online reservations system, however, I believe it should not be the only tool in your outlet. In this technological time, we crave simplicity and efficiency from a smartphone and aim to be able to do everything from this one device in the least amount of time possible. However, what becomes more frustrating with technology is when it does not go to plan due to constraints from software. The bookings software is just not there yet. The software cannot upsell like a person can, it cannot recommend menu items from personal experience and it cannot give locality information during the booking process. Simply an algorithm cannot always replace a human.

Bringing back the reservationist and adding what I would call a ‘retro’ approach to bookings, will make you stand out from the crowd.

Your reservationist must be trained to be the ‘know it all’ about your business. They are the voice of your organisation and the first point of interaction to the public. They must have the ability to manage a complaint, respond effectively to a marketing or PR request, direct a HR and recruitment request; and the list goes on.

When a reservationist is focused exclusively on taking bookings, you can only imagine what the response will be when someone calls seeking employment within the organisation. “Email HR on this email address, goodbye” End of call. Meanwhile, your restaurant just lost a fantastic barman to the next restaurant who took the call more effectively.

I know the idea of a call centre and a ‘human’ on a phone may sound a little archaic to some people, but at least read the below and then make your own judgement to see if you are really doing it right.

Below is a list of best practices that your restaurant reservations team can use.

It’s interesting to consider what differentiates a top performing reservationist from the rest of the team. Generally, it's because they truly understand your brand and apply several best practices they have mastered into their daily routine.

1. Being prepared for the differentiating the calls.

It is important to understand that not all calls will be a reservation. It could be a call that is a complaint or a compliment from a previous dining experience in your outlet; or it could be a question for an event, menu options, capacity or room size. A good reservationist will know exactly how to respond to any of these cases and more; with one outcome, a satisfied guest. This is a prime example as to the limitations of an online booking software. Yes, you can have a click here for HR, click here for PR, or click here for other. Meanwhile, the writer for Conde Nast who wanted a last-minute article on a restaurant went to your competitor who took the call. What did that cost your business?

2. Listening carefully to the customer’s needs and ask the right questions

Most people stop listening and start planning a response before understanding the request fully. We are all guilty of doing this. The core question, problem, or compliment is not always understood. A top reservationist will listen to the customer, make notes and then carefully respond appropriately understanding the customer’s feelings and position. You can ask all the questions in the world but if you don't hear what people tell you won't be able to present the proper solution.

Let’s take a complaint as an example. The disgruntled customer calls the restaurant and asks for the Manager. Without any questions, the call is transferred to the manager, who is then bombarded with the complaint and has zero information at hand to be able to actively find an amicable outcome. When it comes to complaints or the like, the top performer will ask the right questions that probe to the heart of the issue. This sounds simple but most people fail at this and ask weak, feeble questions. Top performers are comfortable asking the right questions to find the solution. “May I ask what this is regarding”, “When did you dine in”, “Please explain to me your experience so I can ensure the appropriate person handles the matter”, etc etc.

A top performer will also have certain KPI’s linked to what discounts, complimentary offers and vouchers they can offer. An idea would be to train your team in effective complaint handing so that calls do not have to go to mangers. Yes, the manger should be informed, however handling a call before escalating it should be a set KPI; In addition, the customer appreciates the concern being handled as soon as possible. Extending the time of handling the matter only agitates the customer more.

3. They ask for clarification and take detailed notes

When a top performer is unclear of what is being requested, they will ask the obvious questions: "Can you clarify that for me?". It sounds simple; however, I have seen on many occasions the wrong information sent to departments due to a poor understanding from the call centre. The call could be a PR enquiry that requires information on your venue by a due date to publish in a magazine. The reservations take note of the request without the due date. By the time the PR manager returns the call, it’s too late; the article is published and your venue has missed out. The top performer is prepared with notebook at hand and actions all what is requested of them.

4. They carefully plan their day and schedule

During the day, there will be calls that need to be transferred to appropriate departments. For example, events bookings will be passed onto the events manager, HR enquiries past onto the HR department, account matters passed onto the finance team etc. etc. A top performer will have a schedule that will allow for follow ups to each of these departments to ensure that the call has received the appropriate feedback. The last thing a top performer wants is the second phone call from a customer, stating that the problem or request was not handled.

5. They set high KPI’s for closing reservations.

Top performing reservationists do not wait for their manager to issue the KPI’s. They set their own goals that are usually more ambitious than the group KPI’s set by the manager. Rewards programs set by the management is just a base for what the restaurant wants to achieve. For example, the reservationist may receive £1 per person as a booking bonus after achieving a minimum of say 100 pax in a week. The top performer will aim for 300 pax, knowing they can pocket an extra one hundred pounds.

In most cases, where there is a reward there is penalty. Say that bonus KPI’s are deducted if more than 2 enquiries or complaints in a month are not handled effectively and need to be transferred over to the manager. In this case, the top performer will set their own KPI of a ‘zero strike rate’. Meaning that the target is to ensure no calls go to the manager and all calls are handled effectively. They will analyse past calls and complaints to better manager future calls. The top performers are your assets and at minimum must be remunerated above market rate for this skill.

6. Upselling and recommendations

Having a reservationist allows for the opportunity to upsell during the booking process. For example, if a PA is booking a table for their Manager for an important business lunch, a top performer will take the opportunity to offer the chefs menus, so that the meal is uninterrupted from waiters asking for choices from a menu. Meanwhile the average spend on that table has just been bumped up, selling a 3-course menu rather than the guest possibly choosing one course. Another example would be if a guest was to make a reservation for an anniversary. If it were an online system, maybe there would be a small area to write notes. “it’s our anniversary, can you do something special?”. However, with the top performer on the phone, the offerings are only limited by budget. “We can arrange flowers on arrival, a glass of champagne, a special menu” etc etc. And imagine how many people do not even write in the notes when booking online. The top performer will pry and ask every reservation if it’s a special occasion, taking every opportunity to upsell.

7. They know their product

They know the restaurant layout, the menu, the staffing structure and the operating procedures extremely well. This allows them to sell or offer their product, service or solution to any call. The vast majority of people fail miserably at this. They usually end up talking about aspects of the product or offer solution that have little or no relevance to their customer's situation. A top performer will spend time with the operations team to understand the guest experience. Therefore, any situation at hand is fully understood. They study the wine list, food menus and events packs to offer the right information to the guest.

8. They are ready for objections.

On many occasions, they will be unable to satisfy the customer’s request. Customers may ask for a table at 7:30pm on a Saturday night, when policy states 2 sittings to maximise the capacity, hence needing a 6:30pm booking or a 9pm booking. Top performers anticipate objections and plan their response before the call. They assist with solutions, such as 8pm entry and a drink at the bar until the table is ready, or recommend after dinner venues nearby if the guest chooses 6:30pm when they have a theatre show at 10pm. They study the area and offer pre and post dining solutions if the restaurant cannot cater for their needs. But most importantly, the do not lose the booking.

9. The important follow up call

As mentioned in point 5 in planning the day, the top performer will follow up important and valuable bookings, events or complaints. If a complaint guest has been re-invited in for dinner, the top performer will follow up with a call after the event to ensure the guest has now been satisfied. If a big event has been requested through the top performer and they have passed onto the events manager, the top performer will follow up with the events manager to ensure that the booking is complete. They will even follow up on simple reservations for 2 people, such as a special occasion which they took the booking for; engagements, birthdays or wedding anniversaries. The special touches bring back business and make the occasion even more memorable.

The reservationist is more than just a phone operator or reservationist; And considering the above, we should consider a better title for this role. I know I have referred the role as a reservationist, however I recommend suiting your own establishment and structure. What could the title be you ask? Contemplate the role in detail as to what you want to achieve in your outlet. From the hotel organisational structure methodology, an option could be Guest Relations.

One final point: Focus is on reservations.

Although I have mentioned several other reasons as to why the reservationist is more than just a person to take bookings. We all understand that a large percentage of the role is to actually do just that, take reservations. Therefore your ‘Guest Relations’ team must recognise that there are explicit operational considerations that assist the restaurant operations.

Reservations help the restaurant estimate demand and allow the Restaurant Manager to better schedule their staff. Reservations also help manage the workflow and plan the mise en plus. By staggering the reservations or creating 2 sittings on peak evenings as previously mentioned the restaurant manager can ensure that the kitchen or floor staff are not overwhelmed by all customers arriving at once. Swamping the bartender with cocktail orders and burying the kitchen with food requests is the last thing any restaurant needs. Your online booking program can do this to a certain extent. A clever algorithm that states how many bookings can be taken at a certain time. However, it takes a top performer to maximise your bookings and offer more than an online system can ever do.

Paul Sarlas was born in Sydney, Australia and was exposed to the hospitality industry from a young age, growing up in a family that owned and operated cafes and restaurants. Paul began his career in the family business, working in all aspects of the restaurant industry, whilst studying commercial cookery to become a qualified chef. His passion for front of house, strong marketing techniques and ability to interact well with customers led him to perusing a career in the front of house. Paul continued his studies in management and took a post in a boutique hotel in Sydney.

Paul’s passion in F&B moved him from hotels to free standing restaurants working his way up to management positions at a very young age. Paul opened his first café in the Sydney Suburb of Brookvale. With the success of this café, he soon expanded to the second café in North Sydney. Paul created successful well-known business to build a reputation and make a mark in the Sydney dining scene.

With the continuing growth and international expansion, consulting in the UK, Bangkok, Hong Kong and China. Paul has continued to work globally firstly Singapore as Director Asia Pacific for Hilton Worldwide managing almost 300 F&B outlets in 17 countries. He then moved to Moscow as Director for Stepan Mikhalkov as Director for Verchisky, Vanil and a number of other restaurants and cafes within the group.

With an international focus Paul has been appointed as CEO with restaurant groups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and London. Now Paul continues his consulting company, Savvy IQ and developments concepts in London and internationally, with 4 restaurants concepts opening in 2017/18.


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