Customer experience tweaks that boost restaurant results


restaurant customer experience

If you own or manage a restaurant, just like any business you must create awareness to attract customers.

Getting diners into the restaurant is not the end game, though.

You’re still competing on the actual experience, which drives both your customers’ satisfaction and their loyalty. Customers won’t hesitate to switch to your competition if they are disappointed with any aspect of their experience.

This is true for every business, of course, not just restaurants. But it is especially true for businesses that offer customers a great variety.

Let’s examine the restaurant customer experience from a consumer behavior perspective. Even if you aren’t a restaurateur, many of the consumer behavior principles discussed here can be applied to other types of businesses.

Whether you are in the restaurant business or not, you can relate. You have definitely dined out, which makes you the customer. Time to learn a few tricks.

The Paradox of Choice

Take a moment and think about the restaurant business. How many restaurants are in one country? In one city? In one neighborhood?

The competition is fierce. The options are limitless.

I am often hit by the paradox of choice, paralyzed, not able to decide which restaurant to visit. My friends and I might spend an hour or two considering where to hang out, and then end up going to one of our usual spots.

Is it really worth it to invest in the restaurant customer experience?

Let me ask this way: What happens when you decide to go to a restaurant?

I want you to remove your restaurant-manager hat and be the customer.  

What are you in the mood for? Do you want to plan a night out? Perhaps go out for a date? Are you feeling a little spontaneous?

Depending on your mood and expectations, that restaurant experience will influence whether you are going to come again. In marketing terms, it would be a deciding factor on whether you are going to become a repeat customer.

We all have our favorite little restaurant that we always come back to. In fact, I know a guy who is obsessed with a tiny local restaurant in Rome. He dined there for all three days he spent in the city. He fell in love with it to the extent he wouldn’t eat anywhere else for his entire stay.

A good restaurant experience will determine many things, one of them is whether a customer will be a repeat customer, says @sherwette at #Neuromarketing Share on X

How to enhance your restaurant’s customer experience.

Smart business owners invest in the customer experience. They work to increase customer loyalty, then turn those loyal customers into advocates.

These investments include market research, digital tools and revamped design.

We’re going to consider a unique way to enhance the restaurant customer experience. A way that uses methods that, once applied, can have an incredible impact. A way that doesn’t necessarily cost a lot of money, but has high impact. We’re going to draw from the best information to come out of consumer behavior psychology studies.

What does the restaurant customer experience look like?

I am going to break it down in steps  that you can relate to at any given point based on your own customer experience dining out.

Step 1: First, you figure out where you are going to eat.

Step 2: Then, you actually go to the place.

Step 3: You take a seat.

Step 4: You look at the menu and decide what you are going to order.

Step 5: You place your order.

Step 6: The food arrives. You dine.

Step 7: You pay the bill.

Step 8: You tell your friends about the place… or maybe not.

Sounds familiar? Alright. Let’s dig deeper into each step and see how we can improve the customer experience.

Step 1: First, you want to figure out where you are going to eat.

When it comes to deciding where to eat, you are either planning it ahead of time or you are feeling a little spontaneous and going with the flow.

In customer experience terms, this is what we call the ‘Discover’ phase. You are exploring your options.

If you are planning it in advance, let’s say, for a date, there are a few things that you likely consider:

1] Word-of-mouth: What did your friends tell you about this incredible place they have been to?

Fun fact: According to Jonah Berger in his book, Contagious, research by the Keller Fay Group found that only 7 percent of word-of-mouth occurs online. I know, I was surprised too — and that’s the reason I rank word-of-mouth before Googling.

Why is word-of-mouth important to your restaurant customer experience?

It’s important because:

  1. We trust our friends and family. They wouldn’t lie to us. Whether they had a bad or a good experience, they won’t hesitate to share it.
  2. It is targeted. You wouldn’t recommend your friend a Thai restaurant if you know for a fact that he doesn’t like Thai food.

“A word-of-mouth conversation by a new customer leads to an almost $200 increase in restaurant sales.”  — Jonah Berger, Contagious: Why Things Catch On

2] Googling, reading reviews and checking online ratings: What rating did it get on Google reviews, Tripadvisor, etc.? How many people reviewed it? What exactly did they like about the place? What didn’t they like? Does it have pictures online? How do you like the ambience?

In this exercise, you are looking for “social proof”.

Why is “social proof” important to your restaurant customer experience?

When a customer is looking for “social proof” she is looking to see if others like the restaurant. She thinks if others like it, it must be good.

“People imitate, in part, because others’ choices provide information. Many decisions we make on a daily basis are like choosing a restaurant in a foreign city, albeit with a little more information. Which one is the salad fork again? What’s a good book to take on vacation? We don’t know the right answer, and even if we have some sense of what to do, we’re not entirely sure. So to help resolve our uncertainty, we often look to what other people are doing and follow that. We assume that if other people are doing something, it must be a good idea. They probably know something we don’t. If our tablemates seem to be using the smaller fork to pick at the arugula, we do the same. If lots of people seem to be reading that new John Grisham thriller, we buy it for our upcoming vacation. Psychologists call this idea “social proof.”  — Jonah Berger, Contagious

If, on the other hand, you are passing by, feeling spontaneous and a little hungry, there are few things that you might have considered:

1] Which restaurant has the biggest crowd? — We are inclined to behave in a way that is aligned with others, hence, the ‘social proof’, I mentioned earlier. If there are a lot of customers dining in, this restaurant must be good.

2] Or if you are like me, you would open your Google Maps application and hit “Explore — Restaurants” and then again check out the ratings, the number of reviews and what people are saying. This again hits the “social proof” concept, as well as, the “word-of-mouth” — this time though it’s the online “word-of-mouth”.

Step 2: Then, you actually go to the place.

When it comes to “getting there”, there are a few things that could impact the restaurant customer experience.

1] The means of getting there. Are you driving? Taking an Uber? Using public transportation?

Whichever way you decide to go, one fact remains constant: you don’t want to get lost. You want to go there in the shortest time with the least inconvenience. So, basically, if you weren’t able to find the restaurant on Google Maps, it pretty much doesn’t exist.

Click here to add your business to Google Maps.

2] Entering the restaurant. First impressions last forever, and that is especially true when you meet the restaurant staff at the entrance. Are they friendly? Are they smiling?

Today, I was having breakfast with a friend and when we entered the restaurant, the winning smile the waitress had on her face practically made my morning.

The power of that friendly smile paid off.

Why ensuring your staff “smile” to your customers is important to your restaurant customer experience.

A smile works like magic when it comes to selling — and that fact is backed up with consumer behavior studies.

Roger Dooley in his book Brainfluence mentioned that a smile helps in

  1. Increasing sales — as in volume, and
  2. How much $$$ customers are willing to pay

In fact, that smile doesn’t even have to be in-person to influence customers. The power of a smile is so strong that its mere existence in an image would increase the likelihood of closing a sale.

“A study done a few years ago by Piotr Winkielman of the University of California, San Diego, and Kent C. Berridge of the University of Michigan showed that even subliminal smile images could have a significant effect. The researchers showed subjects a picture of a neutral face that was neither smiling or unsmiling for a little less than half a second. That’s long enough to recognize the face and identify its gender, which is what the subjects were supposed to do. The researchers also inserted a very brief image of a smiling or scowling face. This image was shown for only 16 milliseconds. The subjects were unaware of the smile/scowl image they had been exposed to and were neither more nor less positive. Despite this, subjects who were thirsty served themselves more of a beverage and drank more if they saw a happy face. The Price of a Smile  — A second phase of the study showed that thirsty subjects would pay about twice as much for the same beverage if they saw a happy face instead of an angry one.” —Roger  Dooley, Brainfluence

3] The scent  —  What does it smell like?

Aromas boost sales. When you walk by a Cinnabon in the mall, you know what I mean. That scent triggers delicious memories and then you end up grabbing that Cinnamon roll to refresh your memory and satisfy the craving it brings.

Why is ‘scent’ important to your restaurant’s customer experience?

Simply put, it will boost your sales.

“One small but interesting study measured sales of a liquor product in a bar. Patrons who had the aroma of that beverage pumped into the surrounding air while a visual ad could be seen purchased nearly twice as much of the product as those who saw the ad alone.” — Roger Dooley, Brainfluence.

Step 3: You take a seat.

The type of seat you sit on influences your experience when you are dining and socializing. Is it a soft seat or is it a hard one? The type of seats doesn’t impact how much you are enjoying the food as as it affects how much you are enjoying your company… and hey, isn’t enjoying your company a crucial factor for enjoying a meal out?

Why ensuring your seats are soft is important to your restaurant customer experience.

Rigid seats would make your customers feel that their company is inflexible, while soft seats would make them perceive their company as more flexible and warm. The better the memories, the more likely they will want to relive them.

Below is an interesting study mentioned in the book Brainfluence on how the type of seating influences negotiation discussions.

A study by Joshua M. Ackerman (MIT), Christopher C. Nocera (Harvard), and John Bargh (Yale), showed that “hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations.” One of a series of experiments involved a simulated car price negotiation in which the subject had to make a price offer for a car, which was rejected. Then, the “buyer” had to make a second offer. The subjects were also asked to evaluate their negotiating partner. The researchers found that there was a significant difference between subjects sitting in hard and soft chairs. Those seated in hard chairs judged their negotiating partner to be less emotional. Most significantly, the “buyers” in soft chairs increased their offer by nearly 40 percent more than those in hard chairs. In short, not only did a hard chair change the buyers’ perception of their negotiating partners, it made them harder bargainers.” —  Roger Dooley, Brainfluence

Step 4: You look at the menu and decide what you’re going to order.

This step is my favorite. The menu  —  you look at it and decide. You might be thinking, “Should I get the seabass or the lamb chops? Perhaps I will get the carbonara today.”

First, you skim the menu, then you choose.

The menu helps you decide what you are going to eat and whether you are going to save some space for dessert.

A well-designed menu would definitely influence consumers’ decisions. My favorite menus have loads of pictures and in a moment you will discover the power of those pictures. Read on.

Why investing in your menu, as a restaurant manager, isn’t such a bad idea.

There are a few tricks I am going to share with you that I learned from Brainfluence.

1] What font are you using for the text?

If you want your customers to associate your brand as luxurious and perhaps more complex, in which those delicious meals were prepared by a “special” chef, then use fancy fonts. A word of caution though, fancy fonts demand more effort from the eyes, so it could turn some people off from reading the whole menu.

”As part of their ongoing cognitive fluency research, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan found that restaurant menus are one such case. The researchers presented test subjects with a description of a menu item printed in either a simple font or a harder-to-read font. The subjects who saw the difficult font rated the skills needed by the chef significantly higher than the subjects who saw the simple font.  —  Roger Dooley, Brainfluence

2] Are you writing indulgent food descriptions? 

Using emotion-rich adjectives to describe the dishes on the menu can boost sales and increase diners’ satisfaction.

“Research shows that properly used adjectives actually increase revenue. 

For example, Dr. Brian Wansink studied the effect of descriptive menu labels and found they increased sales by as much as 27 percent. He divided his adjectives into categories, including geographic (e.g., “Southwestern Tex-Mex salad”) and sensory (e.g., “buttery plump pasta”). Branding adjectives can help too, like “Jack Daniels” barbecue sauce. 

According to Wansink, not only do vivid descriptors nudge patrons toward a purchase, they also increase satisfaction at the end of the meal compared with the same food without the labeling.” — Roger Dooley, Brainfluence

3] How do you display the prices?

If you want your customers to choose from the pricer end of the menu, lose the $ sign and the decimal points .00.

“One Cornell study looked at several common restaurant price display techniques: 

Numerical with dollar sign: $12.00 

Numerical without dollar sign or decimals: 12 

Spelled out: twelve dollars 

The researchers expected that the written/scripted prices would perform best, but they found that the guests with the simple numeral prices (those without dollar signs or decimals) spent significantly more than the other two groups did. When you visit a restaurant and find the menu has small prices presented this way, you’ll know they are up on their neuromarketing best practices!”  —  Roger Dooley, Brainfluence

4] Are you including pictures of the food? 

Saving my favorite for last. Didn’t I tell you I love those food pictures?

Pictures help you imagine what you are going to eat before even tasting it. They help you immerse and indulge. In fact, if you wait a few days, you might actually think you had a specific dish that you didn’t even order.

Sounds odd? It’s true.

A word of caution. If the image quality is not that great, your customers might think the food actually didn’t taste that good.

“Research shows that some print ads can be impactful enough to create a false memory of having tried a product that doesn’t even exist! 

Researchers Priyali Rajagopal (Southern Methodist University) and Nicole Montgomery (College of William and Mary) showed subjects either high-imagery or low-imagery versions of print ads for a fictitious popcorn product, Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Fresh, but gave them no product to taste. A third group of subjects was allowed to consume samples of the invented product, which was actually a different Redenbacher popcorn.

A week later, all of the participants were surveyed to determine their attitudes toward the product and how confident they were about their opinions. Amazingly, members of the group that viewed the more vivid ad were as likely to report that they had tried the product as the group that actually consumed the samples. The group that saw the low-imagery ads were less likely to report they had tried the product and had weaker, less favorable opinions about it.”  —  Roger Dooley, Brainfluence

Step 5: You place your order.

As a customer, you want to get what you ordered. I mean, the last thing you want to get is something you didn’t order, especially when you are in a large group.

You feel reassured and you might actually like the waiter more if he repeated your order, word-for-word.

Why is repeating the order word-for-word influential to the restaurant customer experience? 

Repeating the order not only reassures customers but results in increasing the tips they are paying.

Here is an interesting experiment mentioned in the book Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion by Noah Goldstein , Robert B. Professor Cialdini, Steve J. Martin, where they argued that repeating the customer order word-by-word create the perception that the waiter and the diner are to some extent similar, and we, as humans, tend to like people who are similar to us, and perhaps that contributes to increasing the tip.

“A piece of research by Rick van Baaren tested the idea that food servers who match their customers’ verbalisations after receiving the order will increase their tip size. No paraphrasing, no nodding, no ‘OKs’ — just repeating back word for word the customer’s order. In one study, simply by matching their customers’ verbalisations after receiving the order, the food servers at one restaurant increased their tip size by nearly 70 percent.

Why should mirroring another person elicit such a generous response? Perhaps it ties into our natural inclination to prefer people who are similar to us. In fact, researchers Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh argue that matching the behaviours of others creates feelings of liking and strengthens bonds between two people. In one experiment, the researchers set up a situation in which two people had a brief interaction. However, one of the participants was actually a research assistant. In half the cases, the research assistant mirrored the posture and behaviours of the other participant. In other words, if the participant sat cross-armed and tapped her foot, the research assistant sat cross-armed and tapped her foot. In the other half of the cases, the research assistant didn’t follow suit.

The researchers found that the participants who had been mirrored liked the research assistant more and felt that the interaction was smoother than did participants whose behaviour had not been mirrored. Similarly, food servers who match their customers’ verbalisations probably garnered more tips because of the liking principle — that we want to do nice things for and say ‘yes’ to people we like.

Step 6: The food is finally here. You dine.

Wait. Which dish did you choose? Is it the most expensive one? the cheapest? Hey, no judgment here. But you should know this:

How much we spend influences how much we are going to enjoy our food. It’s worth noting though that this happens on the subconscious level. You don’t actually think, I bought the expensive main dish and so I am enjoying it more.

This concept is called the “the price placebo” and is explained in an experiment revealing how much you enjoy wine based on how expensive it is:

“Researchers at Stanford University and Caltech demonstrated that people’s brains experience more pleasure when they think they are drinking a $45 wine instead of a $5 bottle, even when in reality it’s the same cheap stuff!

The important aspect of these findings is that people aren’t fibbing on a survey; that is, they aren’t reporting that a wine tastes better because they know it’s more expensive and they don’t want to look dumb. Rather, they are actually experiencing a tastier wine.”  —  Roger Dooley. Brainfluence

As a restaurant manager, how can you influence your customers’ dining experience?

Your customers might not want to get the most expensive item, but they also might not want to get the cheapest.

The best way to influence their decision on choosing a relatively pricy item is to place it in the middle. First, put the most expensive dishes at the top, which would make any other item below them seem reasonable in price. That said — make sure to add cheaper items as well so that when your customers select the mid-range items, they still know that in the back of their head, they chose a pricey item and end up enjoying it.

Step 7: You pay the bill.

1] You get the bill and pay

Spending money can be a painful process, for all of us.

Here is an interesting fact.

“One of the key insights neuroeconomics and neuromarketing research have provided us is that buying something can cause the pain center in our brain to light up.” — Roger Dooley, Brainfluence

The best way to ease the pain is to make it easier is to pay with a credit card, or even better with Apple pay (or any mobile payment).

Why offering cashless payment methods is important to your restaurant’s customer experience.

The pain happens when we pluck the money out of our wallets and spend it. Less pain is involved when you pull out a credit card. You don’t actually remove money and count it. Even better when you don’t have to lift a finger to pull out your wallet and you use your phone, instead.

“The problem is that, for many consumers, the credit card takes the pain (quite literally, from the standpoint of the customer’s brain) out of purchasing. Pulling cash out of one’s wallet causes one to evaluate the purchase more carefully. We think this makes a lot of sense and is entirely consistent with real-world behavior. A credit card reduces the pain level by transferring the cost to a future period where it can be paid in small increments. Hence, not only does a credit card enable a consumer to buy something without actually having the cash, but it also tips the scale as one’s brain weighs the pain versus the benefit of the purchase. This can be a bad combination for individuals lacking financial discipline.”  —  Roger Dooley. Brainfluence

2] You leave a tip

Depending on which country you live in, the rules for paying tips will vary. In some countries, there is an unspoken rule that a certain percentage of the bill is to be paid as a tip, while in other countries, it’s not really the norm and it is up to the customer to decide on how much they are willing to tip.

Usually, the amount you put aside for the tip is directly proportional to how satisfied you are as a customer. If you were extremely delighted, you would be extra generous. If the service was slow, you might be thinking, do they really deserve this much?

So, here is a trick for restaurant managers.

Instead of keeping a basket of mints (or sweets) for customers to pick from, personally give them a small treat at the end of the meal.

Why giving a sweet treat at the end of the meal is important to your restaurant customer experience.

It will increase the tips customers are willing to pay.

Double the treat for even more tips, and if you manage to make the customer feel that this second treat is special and just for them, you would get even more tips. Of course, don’t forget that friendly smile. It’s part of the charm.

The rule of reciprocation performs its magic in this scenario.

An interesting experiment by the behavioral scientist David Strohmetz that could shed some light on this concept was shared in the book Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion by Noah Goldstein , Robert B. Professor Cialdini, Steve J. Martin,

“Behavioural scientist David Strohmetz and colleagues conducted an experiment to determine what effect, if any, giving a little confectionery to patrons at the end of the meal would have on food servers’ tips. In one test condition, when presenting the bill the food servers included a single sweet for each diner. What happened to the average tip from those diners compared with a control group who received no sweet? The researchers found an increase in tips– not a huge one, but an increase all the same of 3.3 percent. In the second condition, the servers gave two sweets to each diner. Despite the fact that this was only an additional penny-a-piece sweet, tips were 14.1 percent higher than when no sweet was given. All of this is reasonably predictable, considering what we know about the norm of reciprocity — the more a person gives to us, the more we feel obligated to give in return. But what factors make a gift or favour most persuasive of all? The third condition in this study provides us with the answer.

For the third group of diners, the servers first gave one sweet to each person at the table. They then turned away from the table, signaling that they were leaving. Before exiting the area completely, however, they turned back towards the diners, reached into a pocket and placed a second sweet on the table for each diner. By making this gesture it was almost as if they were saying to their customers, ‘Oh, for you nice people, here is an extra sweet each.’ The result? A 23 percent increase in tips.

Step 8: You tell your friends about the place…or maybe not.

Once again, “word-of-mouth” will play a role here. You are either going to:

  1. Tell your friends about how awesome (or terrible) the experience was or
  2. Never mention it because it wasn’t really a memorable experience

And if you are social-media savvy, you are going to spread the word online.

Having said that — restaurant managers could use the rule of reciprocation to their advantage.

“How?” You might ask.

There are many ways. The possibilities are endless and you might want to align that special treat with your brand. You are only limited by your own imagination.

You could provide a free dessert. You could give customers a discount voucher for the next visit (or for this visit). You could offer to take a picture of their group for Instagram.

Basically, provide them with a small favor.

Then, ask if they could write a review for your restaurant on TripAdvisor, Google Reviews, etc.


“The rule or reciprocation… says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.” — Robert Cialdini

The little things matter. They always do, and the restaurant experience is no exception. In every step, you could make an incredible impression on your customers by applying simple consumer behavior principles. So, are you going to try them out?

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