Your Most Important Business Relationship

I am not one who spends much time watching TV, but when I do I am always intrigued by the ads run by chain restaurants.

Whether they are focused on the latest fast food promotion, the "family friendly" ambience of a dinner-house or the social ambience of a fast casual chain looking to be the next Friday afternoon hot spot for Millennials, they all have something in common. They almost always are designed to help the chains establish some kind of "emotional" bond with prospective customers.

Sometimes they do this with humor; other times it is through photography and broadcast copy that emphasizes fun, family relationships or (especially when they're pitching the younger set) the "coolness" of a new menu offering.

When consumers are faced with choosing a place to eat, something most of them do hundreds of times a year, any kind of emotional connection—whether established by past experience, a TV advertisement or just by appealing to someone's desire to "try something new"—is a huge leg up in terms of competitive advantage.

Onsite operators will never have the budgets to promote their brands and locations with the kind of firepower brought to bear by leading chains, but that doesn't mean there aren't some important lessons to be learned from the strategies they employ. Obviously, this is not a breakthrough insight. But the point is, no matter how much attention you pay to such issues already, you can almost always pay more, and get better results still.

Another thing to consider is that "building emotional bonds" is a different thing than "paying attention to customer needs and wants."

The needs and wants strategy is a practical one based on classic marketing theory: you will always sell more product by offering what the customer wants or thinks he or she wants than by pushing what's convenient for you to sell.

But to build an emotional bond is to appeal beyond the customer's basic product needs. It goes to the heart of how the customer feels about your operation—its food selections, convenience, value, ambience, servery employee attitudes—in short, the entire dining experience at your facility. And all of those issues are considered in the flash of a "consuming moment" when a patron decides whether or not your place feels like a good place to spend the lunch hour.

The decision about where to dine is very often a gut one, even for those value customers who put a high value on dollars and cents. And if you are lucky enough to have truly captive customers, it still matters. The emotional bond goes directly to the issue of perceived satisfaction. And in today's business environment, that's an issue no operator can afford to ignore.

Here are a few strategies that support such an emotional bond-building strategy:

Hire employees who have attitude and personality. If you want a friendly, outgoing staff, make that a hiring priority—it can seldom be taught after the fact. Make sure hiring interviews are designed to identify such traits early on, and that the idea of building customer relationships is established as one of a job position's responsibilities.

Reinforce the importance of relationship building with your existing staff. Make sure they know that you see it as a key element of customer, counter and serving line responsibility. Servery staff should be trained to recognize customers by name and by preference.

If they don't know a customer's preference, they can find out by offering a choice: "Would you like mayo, mustard, or something else with that?" or "What do you think is the best sandwich on our menu?"

Design promotions and special events to focus on relationships as well as food. The key here is interactivity, among customers themselves as well as with your staff. But make sure it's never forced. There are always some customers who just want to be left alone.

Match your servery design to the customers who really use it. I'm not necessarily talking renovation here. Start with simple things: small tables with good lighting for those who like to read a newspaper at lunch; larger, "roundtable" areas for groups; offering a system so groups of regulars can "reserve" tables in advance for birthdays, lunch meetings or informal use.

Reward your regulars and find out what makes them loyal. "Frequent diner" programs are useful in some situations; so are "free sandwich" cards passed out to regulars by a manager or supervisor who walks through the servery. It never hurts to let a customer know that you appreciate his or her business, and it's another emotional bonding opportunity.