Updated: Feb 5, 2019
More than 60% of telephone calls to restaurant groups go unanswered – that’s an incredible statistic and one many companies don’t know or track. We’ve worked with six groups in the past year with a remit to develop sales strategies and we have yet to find one that is tracking at more than 40% answer rate on telephone calls. In this competitive market place, we are increasingly working with our clients to think more strategically about sales-driving initiatives beyond marketing.
This prompted me to work with the team at Zonal, which owns liveRES and IOVOX, to host a round table to discover how operators are maximising pre-booked reservations. We welcomed 23 brands to the breakfast event and gained fascinating insights.
For the most part the sector is seeing an increased percentage of business coming from walk-ins, almost certainly linked to increased choice and availability for consumers given the incredible growth the sector has seen. Of the casual dining brands present, the largest percentage of pre-booked covers was hovering around 35%, while the lowest was little more than 10%.
The operators felt for the most part they didn’t have a firm handle on pre-booked yet, whereas the bar and late-night operators seemed much further ahead, with pre-bookings accounting for 40% to more than 50% of total business, driven by a much greater focus on selling packages, securing groups and filling profitable booths. Data shared by Zonal and operators all pointed to a considerable trend towards late bookings, with exponential growth in customers looking online for availability within 15 minutes of their preferred time. This points to people using a mobile phone to check availability or make reservations on the way into a town or city in which they plan to dine.
This is something I’ve seen reinforced in recent surveys and focus groups, where customers have told us they lack loyalty to a particular brand and often choose the location first with a shortlist of brands they would consider. This represents one of the biggest challenges for brands and venues as many operators traditionally turn off reservations well ahead of service.
This way of working definitely affects business levels. Site-level operators may believe they will get the walk-ins but that’s a risk and consumers are telling us they won’t try to walk in if a brand’s website shows “no availability”.
Upskilling and educating general managers and venue teams was the biggest challenge raised during our breakfast session. Many had come across issues of managers closing out swathes of availability in the diary at busy times due to staff shortages and, at times, well before last orders, perhaps to try to cut labour at traditionally quieter trading periods.
Many operators have changed settings on their diaries to require overrides by an area manager for block-outs, while others are retrospectively following up with sites to understand the reasons behind them to ensure there was acknowledge someone was aware.
On the other hand, some brands feel it’s better to fully trust their managers on-site and focus on training during operations meetings instead. Some of the important areas to cover are to ensure diaries are being used live during service rather than working from print-outs, checking guests off tables, placing guests on the right tables and ensuring walk-ins are added to the system. All this makes live availability online possible and supports reporting on opportunities to maximise flows in the future.
Many attendees in the room felt they didn’t have their reservations system set up most effectively. There was also a clear split between restaurant and bar operators as to who was responsible for the system. For restaurant groups, it tends to be left to receptionists or managers on-site, whereas almost all bar and late-night venues have someone ensuring diaries are constantly managed to maximise availability.
This also flowed through to reservations processing. Many of the casual dining groups had no central reservations function, while a few were in the early stages of testing it and only one had a dedicated team. The bar and late-night venues all had dedicated people to manage reservations – either on-site (but not working the floor or door) or based at head office.
One 40-venue group said it had 200 people answering the phone, three-to-five on each site and a large head office function. Another had two-to-four full-timers on-site but no-one based at head office. One large London pub operator had yet to set up central reservations but had hired a “revenue manager”, inspired by hotels, with someone actively managing the diary, availability and forward business patterns.
A constructive way to soft-launch central reservations is with an overflow from unanswered sites in-store. This will give you the much-needed data to build a business case, test technology and ramp up the operational processes.
It was also interesting to see many operators had contracted out central reservations to a third party, with most subsequently bringing it back in-house having proved the concept or feeling it didn’t work as well as they hoped. One operator staunchly supported using an external provider and championed the positive effects of having results-driven team members answering the phone as they work much harder to get someone in rather than someone without incentives.
One key central reservations challenge is getting buy-in from site operators, which also requires clear, consistent, company-wide processes regarding how the diary is set up and used. Many who successfully completed this said it was a tough process but general managers saw it as one less headache and had seen bookings increase. One benefit in answering more phone calls is a fall in no-shows. Customers regularly tell us they try to call to cancel a booking but at peak service their calls go unanswered so the table remains empty.
Turning to technology
Of course central reservations teams are not the only answer to low call-answer rates. Several other options are available, not least installing a pre-recorded message telling people your opening hours and letting customers know it’s easier to book online. I know you’re reading this thinking it won’t make any difference, but it does. By installing this message, we have seen significant ratio shifts towards online with two different clients. Further investigation also revealed a trend of people ending the call at this point of the message, clearing the line, which is fantastic.
Another success we’ve had with clients is using an automated booking system as an option when people call. There is a myth customers want to speak to a real person but most research suggests they just want to make a booking. One case study highlighting success in this area is Mitchells & Butlers, which has rolled the IOVOX solution across its estate and is now receiving 86,000 covers per week from this technology, helping to alleviate missed calls and helping on-site teams concentrate on serving customers. Casual dining giant PizzaExpress has had similar success with the technology.
What struck me most from our breakfast is there are clearly many ways to skin this cat but it seems obvious to me it is something brands need to consider and work on. In a period where success will come through growing market share, it is vital you plug those leaks to capture and convert every potential drinker or diner.
Originally published in Propel.