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How can restaurants drive Christmas cover growth?

Updated: Oct 13, 2018

In the coming weeks many groups will be firming up their Christmas proposition, with the aim of beating the competition to those all important early bookings. It’s a time that can be frantic in terms of signing off menus, ensuring your creative is cracking and starting with the outreach. At this time of year, managing enquiries effectively is vital. 

We have seen an array of mostly London centred groups drive significant growth through a concentration on pre-booked sales in recent years, but it’s not yet a focus for many brands, big or small. 

It all starts with your existing enquiries. Why spend large sums on promotional activity if you aren’t converting the enquiries you already receive, right?


Of the dozens of groups phone records our team have analysed, not one has had a call answer rate over 50%, before focusing on improving it. That means (repeat callers aside) that at least half of the people that have made a decision of do some kind of business with you haven’t been able to get through to even enquire. 

Many operators are off the mindset “they’ll go online” - maybe, but personally I’ll just call somewhere else. With how competitive the sector is right now, it’s just not a risk you should be taking. 


When someone finally enquires, by email, online enquiry form or by phone what happens next? How long does it take to get a response? Knowing I was writing this article today, I asked one of my team to send 10 enquiries, for a table of 14 on a Monday night in August, to London sites of well-known brands. We’ve waited 36hrs now. We’ve only had 6 responses. The quickest was 2hrs later. 4 of the 6 came back the next day. Crazy right? As a consumer I expect to hear back within hours, almost certainly within the same day.


I just happen to be planning a celebration right now. I tried calling three restaurants. There isn’t much option in rural Scotland, so I persisted till I got through to them. None would deal with my reservation there and then, needing someone to call me back. Only one did. I booked that. If the others now call back, it’d be too late. What would a customer do, if you don’t call back? Go elsewhere! What would a customer think? That you don’t need the business. What impression are you leaving? That you have terrible customer service. Personally, I’d probably actively avoid visiting any of them again.

It’s a real issue for our sector, which only becomes worse when times are tough, as we put pressure on our operators to keep wages tight which will almost certainly mean cutting back in some areas. This means less people to answer the phone, less likelihood in the right person being in to take group enquiries and almost certainly, less time on answering emails.


As part of our sales strategy development with clients we’ve analysed their approach to enquiries and it is almost always an area that needs a lot of work.


It’s not just a lack of time that makes enquiry management ineffective, it’s also a lack of the proper systems. Shared email boxes, which is most common in the sector, need a clear system on how to mark what’s being dealt with and by who. They don’t proactively remind you what’s still needs relying too and, most importantly, they don’t remind you to follow-up. Your customers are busy, once they’ve made an enquiry, all to often the impetus will have gone and it slips down their to do list. A prompt or follow-up can make all the difference to conversion rates. Getting the right enquiry handling system is the first step to the road of success. 


What can you do to help your brand avoid the pitfalls of poor enquiry management? Here’s some of my top tips;


1. Schedule communications at the right time. Don’t send out emails pre-lunch service when no one is going to answer the phone, no matter how good the open rate is at 11:42am!


2. Set clear standards about time of response, so everyone knows what’s expected.


3. Train your team on handling enquiries effectively. One quick tip is to always call back a prospect rather than emailing. It shows great service and often means it cuts out lots of too and fro with various questions.


4. Consider putting more budget in place for the right team members to deal with enquiries rather than whoever is on shift at the time.


5. Set up your systems so all team members can see and hold availability on your reservation system if the right person isn’t around. It means someone is at least committed and less likely to go elsewhere, even if you need to confirm menus or other details. 


6. Install interactive voice response (IVR) on your telephone system so your customers can be directed to the right person straight away. 


7. Consider an automated reservation call system with your reservation provider, so customers can always make their booking even if someone is not available. 

8. Be clear you your customers on any phone answer messages that they can book online or email. If you are a smaller business you could also make it clear what times are best to speak to someone.


9. For bigger businesses, Consider employing a revenue or reservation manager who is dedicated to overseeing this function if you are big enough. Have them shuffle bookings to maximise capacity, proactively reach out to existing bookings to tweak times to maximise table turns & also provide more foresight to future business flows.


10. Analyse the feasibility of central reservations, with a dedicated team that can concentrate on this function and giving your customers an amazing experience of your brand before their visit. A good starting place for this is having an overflow phone system set up to one person in central support or even consider external providers. This helps to prove the concept and see how many covers you are taking per call answered.

Be sure to make sure you don’t risk doing all the hard graft and missing out on much needed business by not answering the phone or replying to emails quickly enough!