Imagine this scenario: you’ve had a bad experience at your local burger joint. The food was fine, but one of the staff there gave you a little attitude in the form of a passive aggressive remark. You are outraged. If you wanted to be treated like that, you’d go to a family reunion! You hop on social media the instant you get home and vent your frustration to your circle. Then you write a scathing review on Yelp, a skillful mix of righteous indignation and playful one-liners, and you lean back and smile and think, Oh, yes. I have exacted justice. Surely the burger joint owner will come at you with apologies and perhaps offers of discounts to entice you into an updated and more positive review. This is one of those unintended benefits of social media, where everyone can broadcast and influence opinions, empowering the little guy to finally get treated with respect. Right?
The thing is, that kind of social connection goes both ways. Restaurant owners don’t live in a vacuum where Facebook doesn’t exist. And now that you’ve put your name to your face, by way of a public review on Yelp, the owner of the burger joint is looking at your picture and saying, “So, that’s the hypersensitive guy who freaked out about the ketchup last week!”
Next thing you know, she’s got your name plugged into Google and it’s about 15 minutes to piece together a nice little profile that she can add to her POS—just in case you ever show up again. And she might also be asking other hospitality owners in the area if they’ve ever dealt with you, and if not: beware! This is all assuming she doesn’t already know exactly who you are already. Remember that falafel shack you tore apart on Yelp a few months ago? Well, that owner has already done the research on you, and he may very well have warned the burger joint owner. She may already have had a profile on you set up because of that warning, and is now updating it with the note, “Maybe he’s just like my mother. She’s never satisfied.”
Lest this nightmare scenario of amateur espionage and consumer dossiers frighten you, I’ll remind you that there’s an upside to all this. The more likely situation is that you go to a burger joint, you have a pleasant experience, you leave, and that’s that. You paid with a credit card, so the owner knows your name and creates a profile on her POS. She Googles you and finds that you’ve tweeted a picture of your meal with a nice comment. She notes this in your profile. A few months later, you show up again for another meal. Now they know who you are, and they call you by name and comp you a side of french fries to say thanks for the tweet. This is the real reason that restaurateurs are taking notes on and storing profiles of their customers—to improve and personalise their experience every time they come back. Nobody goes into the hospitality business to ruin someone else’s day. That would be like becoming a vegetarian because of all the bacon you can eat. Owners want you to have more than a good meal, they want you to have a great experience. They don’t just want you to come back, they want you to look forward to coming back.
This isn’t a new practice, either—a meal out is, at its heart, an emotional purchase. It’s a luxury that has as much to do with not wanting to deal with cooking and cleaning as it does with wanting to eat. It makes more than semantic sense that a hospitality owner would want to be hospitable. Diners don’t just expect to eat well, but to be taken care of. The consulting firm Hospitality Quotient—owned by World’s Nicest Restaurateur Danny Meyer—teaches this idea almost like a mantra. In an article published in the NY Times a few years ago, HQ’s Managing Director Susan Reilly Salgado explained, “You don’t have to be the very best in your business to be people’s favorite. It’s all about how you make people feel.”
Back when only higher end restaurants could afford to spend on the hardware and software needed to maintain a good customer database, this kind of personalised service was likewise available only to those who could afford it. But now, there’s a host of low-cost apps and tools that even the tiniest of cafes can use to improve the customer experience. Pair that with the fact that most of us live our lives in both the physical and virtual realms, and it’s never been easier for restaurant owners to build useful profiles about their customers. If you’re not used to getting great service or being known when you walk into a place, consider this your warning. It may seem creepy at first that your server knows you like your ketchup on the side, but you’ll appreciate it when you forget to ask.