Still doing manual bookings? The future is online.

Reservations software and online booking systems are not a cost — they are an investment that can help your business immensely.

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I’ve had a number of enquiries from restaurateurs regarding the costs and benefits of the various options for handling restaurant bookings. Given that we have clients who are using almost every option available, I’m confident I have a pretty good handle on the subject.

Most smaller restaurants opt to handle their own bookings with a manual system, which can work quite well given good management, but more often than not it’s organised badly and deters a number of potential customers. Consider a person with a booking enquiry who rings at 9.00am in the morning. I’ll bet that in many cases they are greeted by an answering machine or a staff member (often a cook or a kitchen hand) who hasn’t been trained to deal appropriately with customers, or worse still has a tenuous grip on the English language: ‘Sorry, no Engleesh. You ring back later?’

Consider the enquiry that comes at 1.00 in the afternoon or 7.00 at night when the staff are generally busy in service. I have often found that a call at these times often rings out, or results in being placed on hold for unacceptable periods of time. To a new customer people, this is their first impression of your business, and is the equivalent of having a very grotty front window and entrance. Don’t expect the public to have empathy with your lack of telephone service during busy times.

The next choice for a more professional approach is the use of computer based reservations software. This still requires internal labour and can also present problems during some busy times, but restaurants with reasonable turnover often have an office person who works 9 to 5, and who handles the phone during those times. Problematic phone handling can occur in the evening when the phone is switched to the front-of-house. If the phone rings at 7.30pm when four tables are arriving and other tables are looking around desperately for a drink, I’ll bet the phone is way down the priority list. An option to avoid this is to have the admin person working say, 12 noon – 8 pm, and have the phone handled by trained staff outside these hours.

Most reservations software has the ability to talk to your POS system and maintain records of customer table preferences and previous menu and beverage choices. This gives a huge amount of information to the FOH team that can assist them to increase sales and customer satisfaction. You don’t get these benefits with a manual system. Modern software can also automatically send SMS messages to your customers asking them to confirm their bookings, which substantially reduces ‘no shows’ and saves you annoyance and money in lost revenue.

To give you an example of the effective use of this kind of system, one of my clients uses a well-known software system, and I took my two daughters to his restaurant for the second time in two years. I am well known to the staff but to my pleasant surprise my daughters were also greeted by name upon arrival because somebody had made notes in the system two years prior. When we were seated the sommelier asked me if I had enjoyed the Bindi Pinot I had ordered last time and if I would I like a recommendation of something similar — it was very impressive, even though I knew how they did it.

The next choice up the ladder of booking sophistication is the use of a web based system, where customers book online. In the better online systems table allocation is automatically handled, and special requests are noted for the attention of the staff on shift. The strength of these systems is the labour saving involved, which generally offsets the commission payable to the booking company — you don’t have to have somebody manning the phone, and the booking process is just as easy no matter what time of the day or night.

Online reservation ​​systems have evolved from big, clunky, expensive terminals that used to be physically located at the restaurant and connected to local servers, to more modern online diaries that are web-based, accessible from anywhere and much more affordable. ​Ten years ago a reservation ​​system in Australia would set you back $10 – $15,000​. Today, they are a fraction of that cost and are available on monthly subscription, rather than money up-front.

One big advantage of online systems is the ability for customers to make bookings quickly and easily via their smart phones or tablets; wherever they are at the time. This is particularly appealing to the X, Y and Z generations who seem to live on these devices. To be fair, there are some, mainly older people who don’t like booking over the net, but they are in a very small minority.

Another strong positive of these web based systems is that they often link-in with other restaurant marketing channels such as Google, Qantas Restaurants, Gourmet Traveller, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor and so they capture potential customers from a variety of sources. This can greatly multiply their effectiveness.

Like software reservations systems, online systems can also maintain customer records, but they have the added advantage of being able to provide useful operational benchmark statistics such as customer average spends, popular times for bookings, where your customers come from, etc. They can also give you an insight into how other, similar restaurants are performing by providing statistics on general trends in your region. Other benefits include the capture of customers email addresses which can then be used for your email marketing via newsletter, and the maintenance of ‘blacklists’ of customers who are regular no shows together with information about who is dining and when.

Web based systems are of particular benefit to small and medium sized restaurants that have to be especially careful of wage costs. Some of our clients are generating 40% of their bookings online, and that represents quite a substantial saving in labour. While I am quite comfortable accepting that there is no substitute for pleasant, well trained person-to-person communication, it needs be recognised that this is expensive and time consuming to organise, and only the larger, more professional clients we have seem to get this right.

To highlight the effectiveness of web based systems hotels, airlines and other large companies have been using them for years. You might get an idea of their assessment of the labour saving by considering the discounts offered for online bookings.

You might start your assessment of the benefit of changing your current system by getting somebody to ring your restaurant at selected times of the day and evening and listen on speaker phone to how your staff (or your answering machine) handle the calls. As you listen ask yourself if you were a customer with an enquiry for a $10,000 function or a really important special occasion, would you be happy to continue and book with confidence that you were dealing with professionals? The result may horrify you.

There is no point having good food and service if people choose not to come because they have been turned-off by their initial impression.

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