Win the waiting game: How to keep customers from leaving when tables are full – Part 1

Editorial Team

5 min read
People dining outdoors

On the one hand, it’s an enviable problem. If your restaurant is operating at capacity with people waiting to get in, business can’t be bad. As a bonus, those lingering crowds or lines are serving as an organic marketing campaign, broadcasting to passersby that you’ve got the right stuff. After all, most folks—frequent diners especially—tend to covet a table that’s hard to get.

Until they’re the ones stuck waiting to get it. (And waiting. And still waiting.)

That’s when the situation can swing the other way for those customers and your business—with more money walking out the door than in, especially with younger diners. They’ve been raised on a level of convenience and rapid consumer gratification entirely inconceivable prior to the digital revolution. And with more competition for their entertainment dollar, they are less likely to live with long waits.

So how do you keep guests hanging in there instead of taking their business elsewhere? What are reliable policies to follow and basic mistakes to avoid? When do you comp drinks or food? What are some helpful tech solutions?

Last but definitely not least: how do you identify and address the inefficiencies causing jammed-up wait times in the first place?

With key insights from leading industry experts, this article will guide you to best practices for better outcomes whenever your tables are full.

First impressions matter.

‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’ is an adage that carries extra weight in the hospitality business. And the customer’s experience with your restaurant begins well before they take a seat and are handed a menu. Especially if it’s their first visit.

So let’s paint a scene we’ve all experienced…

The energy and atmosphere of a lively crowd hits you upon entering. It’s exciting, enticing. This place is hopping. But it’s also concerning. You can feel the tension of people waiting, an elixir of anxiety and envy. Eyes track your approach to the maitre’d or hostess. Time slows as you prepare to declare yourself and your intentions. Will the seas part for your party? Or will they dash your hopes on the rocks?

Suddenly, you feel the weight of awkward invisibility. The host or hostess is buried in their reservation book or phone. You finally summon the nerve to audibly request the attention your presence has failed to earn when they curtly cut you off at the pass.

“Thirty to forty minutes. Name?”

There goes your appetite.

“That’s the worst wrong answer,” notes leading hospitality consultant and nationally-recognized restaurant expert Beatrice Stein, who does “a lot of training with front-of-the-house staffers around this very issue.”

“You don’t want to lose them. Yes, it’s usually a busy time when all this happens, so reflexively everybody just wants to give the quick, short answer. But it’s really about spending a few minutes and communicating.”

Lead with a positive attitude and options.

With over 18 years of training and development experience, Beatrice has developed a unique brand of “restaurant therapy” focused on sustaining a deeper level of attention to detail in service and customer care for clients including major names like Carmine’s and Virgil’s.

Kindness, a welcoming attitude, a smile—all that matters. But overall, she insists: “The most important thing is to give the customer options. Don’t just say ‘I can add you to the waitlist’.”

Can you start them with appetizers at the bar? Clover Dining facilitates easy pre-authorizations, letting you invite customers to order some drinks and/or snacks while waiting then seamlessly transfer that tab to their table once it’s ready.

If you don’t have those resources, can you recommend something close by to pass the time until you can text or call them, like a nearby wine bar or art gallery?

Even limited options will feel better to a customer than a take-it-or-leave-it binary.

Take a bonding approach before taking their name.

Hand-holding is part of hospitality. And people can tell the difference between authentic and perfunctory attention. Shape the narrative and you shape the relationship. Confide and clarify from the perspective that you’re in this together.

That mindset shift is key: it’s not the customer’s problem and you’re not the gatekeeper. Instead, approach the delay like a shared challenge you’re bonding over.

Even to the point of oversharing.

“I always tell people to be really honest and communicate really clearly, and really well,” Stein explains. Tell the customer their place in line, tell them how things have been moving, tell them that two parties on the waitlist earlier didn’t come, so things could potentially move faster.

“Give them all the information so they understand.” Fundamentally, by giving them your time and attention, you’re communicating that they matter. That you see them. That you appreciate them.

That way, if they don’t wait this night, you’re increasing the odds that they will return another night.

Ask questions and learn how to read the customer.

Of course, communication is a two-way street.

Ideally, the customer will follow your lead in the forthcoming department—letting you know, for example, if they have a movie to catch or a babysitter to relieve. But it doesn’t hurt to ask. Try to have a real conversation in order to make a real connection.

Your positive attitude will hopefully be infectious. But if not, it’s important that you look for and learn to recognize the signs of a customer unwilling or unable to meet you at least halfway for a rendezvous on flexibility island.

You will still want to remain positive and convey a desire to have them as a guest. But every so often, the situation, whether because of circumstantial or personality factors, will have it better to let a customer gently go.

Be sure to read Part 2 of this post for even more solutions.

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