Exceptional Customer Service: Your New Secret Weapon

Dec 02, 2019

Crush the holiday competition this year by focusing on what’s most important — your guests

With the holidays upon us and restaurants gearing up for that big end-of-year sales push, how can operators grab their share of diners? Lots of chains offer LTOs or double loyalty points to increase foot traffic. Other concepts offer seasonal specials or deals on gift cards. With your competition jockeying for your customers, how can you stand out and grab your fair share?

As with most strategies in the restaurant business, a “back to basics” approach usually reaps the greatest rewards. One of the most essential strategies for success is great customer service. As consultants, we travel across the US and around the world each year, dining in every kind of establishment from fast food to fine dining, sampling every cuisine available. Without a doubt, the biggest driver of a great guest experience is the front-of-house team that consistently delivers warm and engaging hospitality.

As another year draws to a close, we wanted to share some great customer service examples from one of our most admired restaurant chains, the Hillstone Group. Founded in 1976, the company operates 15 separate concepts in a dozen states. Each location offers a menu of around 30 items, all of which are consistently well-executed. While the food is stellar, we regard the Hillstone service model as “the gold standard” in the restaurant industry.

After visiting more than a dozen Hillstone locations across the country, we’ve compiled a list of outstanding customer service techniques that the company employs to turn guests into raving fans:

Take a Team Approach: While each table is assigned a lead server, several waitstaff will touch that table during the guests’ visit. Front-of-house staff are trained to circulate throughout the dining room, looking for empty plates and glasses to whisk away before the guest even notices. Similarly, servers run finished dishes from the kitchen as quickly as possible, even if that food is going to a table delegated to another team member. This coordinated approach places the emphasis on serving the guest and removes the “that’s not my table” mentality from the equation.

The Eyes Have It: We’ve all dined in busy establishments and felt frustrated when it’s hard to catch the eye of your harried server — or any server — when you need more water or another fork when yours hits the floor. Not so at a Hillstone restaurant. Servers and runners are trained to make eye contact with guests as they travel through the dining room. This technique focuses the staff on guests’ needs in an immediate and personal way.

Little Touches, Big Impact: Many restaurants serve their martinis in a chilled glass. But at Hillstone, you’ll get a new chilled glass when you’re half-finished with your drink. This small gesture creates a huge guest impact and enormous goodwill. At Hillstone restaurants that serve water from glass bottles, under-counter reach-ins are strategically placed in the dining room, so the servers always have access to a cold bottle of water for any table. These seemingly small gestures have been carefully crafted to elicit an emotional response from the guest. From a brand standpoint, putting so much effort into something as small as a chilled glass or cold water demonstrates Hillstone’s commitment to making the guest feel welcome and important.

It’s Personal(ity): While the restaurant industry is keenly aware of the nationwide labor shortages, Hillstone maintains strict hiring standards for their servers to obtain the personnel required to execute their customer service program. First and foremost, they hire for personality and attitude before experience. The company knows they can train their recruits on the procedures needed to be successful. Hillstone would rather hire people with less server experience so they can develop them from the ground up and spend less time breaking bad habits.

A dish from Bandera, a Hillstone Restaurant

Train to Meet Expectations: In the Hillstone model, a thorough and detailed front-of-house training program is a given. Servers and runners go through extensive instruction based on specific goals and processes — nothing is ambiguous, and new team members know exactly what the company expects and how to achieve it. While the investment is significant, it’s another way that Hillstone demonstrates its commitment to be the best when it comes to customer service.

How can you adopt a more customer-focused service model? A good place to start is to check your online reviews and any customer feedback you’ve gathered or have been given. Do customers comment on food not coming out hot from the kitchen? Develop a strategy for solving the issue, then train your team on the new procedure. To solve the cold food problem, you can try heating your plates in an oven beneath a stovetop or in a cheese melter. If servers are constantly running back to the kitchen for additional condiments regularly requested by guests, redesign your tablescape to make these items available.

Finally, look for opportunities to genuinely surprise and delight your guests. Maybe that means surprising each table with a sample of a new menu item or creating a Welcome Kit for each new guest that contains the manager’s business card and a bounce-back coupon. Give your team the strategies, tools, and training they need to succeed, and you’ll soon be setting new standards for customer service.