Loyalty isn’t easy. It takes more than incentives. It comes down to effort.  Although customer loyalty programs that reward regulars might please some regulars, the holy grail of customer loyalty is when the customer develops an emotional bond with your restaurant. And it costs barely anything. That is except time and thought.

Let’s start off with what isn’t working well. I am talking about customer loyalty programs. This is because customer loyalty programs have a fatal flaw. Studies show that the customers that are drawn to loyalty programs are tempted by the promotions of your competitors. You can lose them easily as they do not emotionally identify themselves with your brand/restaurant. They are always curious about the place across the street. Compare that to emotionally attached customers. These customers are your promotional foot soldiers. They recommend your restaurant to others and relish bringing new customers into your establishment. And there isn’t really gradations between the two, either you are in love or you aren’t.

Now how does your restaurant build emotional attachments with your customers? How do you convert them? Of course, the customer may build an emotional attachment because some emotionally significant event happened there, often with someone important. But you have no control over this (barring promotions that focus on couples and large family-size groups). What you do have control over is bringing the human element to their dining experience. This can only be accomplished through the gestures and interactions your staff has with the customer. It must be personal and sensitive to their needs, even ones that are unstated.

Here are some strategies to develop personal connections with customers:

  1. Train your staff in spoken interaction, eye contact and body language. Everyone who interacts with customers should be given the know-how to do it properly and do it without the feeling of automation. Customers can read mental scripts. When they connect with customers, advice against staff from repeating themselves to two customers on any day. Also, when it comes hiring time, those who are comfortable talking with strangers and are reasonably gregarious (though tactful) should be on the top of your list.
  2. Read the customer’s needs. Don’t only make sure their water glass is filled, their bread basket full. With training and experienced eye, someone skilled can see when something is off and they can ask the right questions to satisfy their guests. Often, entrust a manager to go around and talk with customers. Rather than sweeping the restaurant, have the manager visit their table at a specific point in their meal. Waiting until they have their main course is in front them is best.
  3. Surprise them. At random (it’s important that it’s not expected), a good strategy is to give regulars (or those that look like potential regulars) special attention after reaching out to them. Perhaps without prompting, send a table a free desert. Have them leave with a sweet taste in their mouth.
  4. Anticipate customer’s routines. If your staff gets to know a customer’s routine (like a particular drink or request), send out the order without them asking. An interesting strategy for a bar that may be clever would be giving out a phone number to regulars for them to text their first cocktail so that they can have their cocktail ready upon arrival.
  5. Find out birthdays and anniversaries, and reward the customer. People are especially emotionally open on birthdays and anniversaries. Give them some reason to come to your restaurant on that day and treat them like royalty.
  6. Make sure you differentiate from your competitors. The more original the idea (but always couple it with contact) the better. You want your customers to be able to remember and cherish your restaurant because it’s special.
  7. Learn their first names. After you notice someone coming back again and again, it’s a good idea to approach them and tell them you are overjoyed they have returned and then ask their name.  Log the information so it can accompany future reservation (and who they first gave their first name too). Don’t though use someone first/last name without asking.

To end, there is nothing like emotional bonding. This is the reason (other than ritual) people go back time and time again. But it’s more a mentality than a promotional idea. No loyalty program can replicate it. Indeed there are no short cuts for real loyalty but there is nothing as resilient and rewarding as a true emotional connection.