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Four female friends at lunch in busy restaurant, full length

“At first I was annoyed that even though I made reservations, I had to wait 30 minutes to be seated. But because they were so friendly, I couldn’t get mad.  They took our bags and coats, and we ordered drinks while we waited to be seated.”

Those are the words of a Yelp reviewer who recently rated a swanky restaurant in downtown Boston; a busy restaurant notorious for long meals and necessary reservations. Guests hate waiting, and you hate disappointing them.  There are many ways to keep things at bay, but the most important is to keep up with restaurant customer service.

busy bar scene

Certainly, you’ve heard the phrase, “worth the wait”. When referring restaurants, it’s the best compliment you can hope for when you know that standing in line is an issue. During the holiday season and other special occasions, wait times can become part of your reputation.

Here are twelve tips to keep guests happy while they wait:

Streamline reservations

Accept them: Many small restaurants shy away from taking reservations because cancellations put a damper on your nightly traffic. However, you may be turning away customers who know that a wait is imminent, especially on cold or rainy days. Also ensure that guests can make a reservation on your website!

Use a system: To reduce cancellations, use a system like OpenTable, which rewards diners for keeping their reservations. OpenTable’s no-show rate is around 5%, which is much lower than the standard. The more you know about whether your guests are showing up, the less trouble you’ll have accepting walk-in guests.

Take a credit card number: To reduce no-shows further, log a credit card number for reservations and charge a cancellation fee for anyone who doesn’t show up.

Restaurant staff taking order customer service

Be honest with customers

Give them an accurate wait time: If the wait is going to be an hour, don’t tell them thirty minutes. When the line is long, surprise them with a shorter wait, not a longer one.

Recommend reservations: If you’re telling customers that the wait is over an hour, also tell them how easy it is to make online reservations for later in the night, or the next day.

Loyal regulars spend 67% more at restaurants than new guests do. With effective guest communication, you can make every guest a loyal regular.

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Double-check their interest: Part of the reason for long estimated wait times is because guests say they’ll wait, and ultimately end up taking off when they get too hungry. Judge their reactions to the wait time and double-check to make sure they’ll be waiting for a table before increasing the wait time for everyone else.

Keep them occupied

Tell them where to shop locally: Are you in a neighborhood with shops? While offering their estimated wait time, give them some ideas for things to do in the immediate neighborhood.

Take their phone number: If you’re sending guests away to keep them busy, take their phone number so that your hostess can call them personally when a table is read. This will also decrease the chance of no-shows.

Give them something to do: Depending on your theme, you might add TV’s to the waiting area, give out crayons and coloring books, or increase the amount of seating. Even better, combine all these ideas and work with nearby artists to distribute their local coloring books or magazines. Always have copies of your menu, so that they can start perusing.

Tortilla chips and salsa in a restaurant

Keep them calm and happy

Make room: If you’re known for long waits, then a proper waiting room, or at least outdoor heat lamps should be added to your budget for the following year. Squashing everyone into a tiny corridor won’t just make people uncomfortable, it’ll scare away others who might have been willing to wait.

Acknowledge them: Nothing is more frustrating than trying muscle your way through a line to find out how long the wait is. When guests arrive, usher them to the front, or train your host to greet them at the door.

Pass out the amuse bouche: They’re hungry…starving, even. A little snack for the brave who wait an hour or more is a nice surprise that they’ll be sure to tell their friends.

Finally, make your meal “worth the wait”. All of your line-serving accompaniments won’t help customer satisfaction if the meal and service doesn’t fit the bill!

Check out Upserve’s guide to excellent customer service!

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As part of Upserve’s family of more than 10,000 restaurants, The Chef is Restaurant Insider’s secret weapon in the kitchen. As a restaurant expert in all things marketing, menu building, management, training and more, restaurateurs trust The Chef and the award-winning Restaurant Insider to dish out the ingredients needed to make your business a sweet success.