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Why mobile wait lists help restaurants serve up better customer experience

Mobile is helping quick service restaurants and dining chains extend the customer experience beyond restaurant doors by rolling out wait list features within their applications to show available times and enable consumers to inform the restaurant of their own expected arrival.

Brands including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Outback Steakhouse have all rolled out wait list features, either within their own or third-party mobile apps. The desire of circumventing frustrated customers and long wait lines has prompted restaurant marketers to turn to mobile to offer a better dining experience before guests arrive at the front door.

?Guest management platforms will definitely become a de facto feature for every restaurant brand to provide in the near future,? said Djamel Agaoua, senior vice president at Cheetah Mobile, San Francisco. ?If they don?t offer it in their own apps, they will offer by a third-party app such as OpenTable or Yelp?s SeatMe.

?It?s an investment that helps restaurants not only fill seats and reduce wait time, but gives them better access to information about their diners, including their preferences and frequency in which they come there. Knowing more about their customers can help serve them better.?

Growing in popularity
Last October, Outback Steakhouse claimed to be the only national restaurant chain to offer mobile access to real-time data about wait times for tables, reflecting how smartphones are innovating customer experiences (see story).

However, Darden Restaurants is joining the fray by enabling guests of its LongHorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden restaurants to view current wait times and add their names to the list via the DineTime consumer app.

The company believes this will help its brands stay afloat in the competitive casual dining chain sector. If consumers visit an Olive Garden to encounter an hour-long wait, they may become inspired to visit a competitor?s restaurant instead to save time.

By using a mobile wait list feature, customers can add their name to the host?s list to coincide with their estimated time arrival. If they are out and about, they may also plan to arrive at the restaurant accordingly by checking the current wait time.

Consumers will likely respond well to this tool, but will rely on dining chains to offer accurate information. If the feature has many glitches, it may ultimately be more detrimental than beneficial and can deter new customers from visiting.

?If brands plan to offer the mobile service, they need to be buttoned up in their execution or they risk damaging their brand,? said Kelly Pellico, vice president of mobile innovation at Millward Brown, Los Angeles. ?Joining wait lists via mobile raises expectations of the dining experience; if the expected wait time is not accurate when they arrive, consumers will be frustrated.

?It will be necessary to maintain wait time precision and properly train staff to manage outlier situations to ensure the dining experience meets expectations and ultimately build the brand.?

Potential pitfalls
Brands may at first face some difficulties in getting a mobile wait list tool off the ground. If they opt to do it themselves and keep the solution in-house, they may struggle with keeping technology current and having the right management staff.

Employees will also require training on how to use it. However, this will enable restaurants to have a direct line to their customers.

Teaming up with a third-party app developer or platform can squash some of these challenges, but also remove that direct line of communication.

?Implementation of any new technology will certainly have costs for the physical set up of the program and the technology integration,? said Ben Hordell, partner at DXagency, Edgewater, NJ. ?Additionally because this service is of great significance for the consumer brands, they will need to reach out to their current customers and educate them about this new and improved way to communicate with the restaurant. 

?It would be our recommendation to reach these customers via mobile advertising and CRM to increase adoption of the necessary mobile applications.?

Nevertheless, implementing this mobile feature will more likely than not result in a cohesive customer experience that begins the moment a user researches a local restaurant on his or her smartphone. Restaurants may also choose to integrate wait lists into a loyalty app, so that frequent customers will be able to access the tool immediately.

?As a business owner, you want to create the best experience possible when people come in your door ? the biggest fear is people walking out without making a transaction, so you want to keep them engaged, and for restaurants, the wait list process needs to be streamlined,? said Jerry Nettuno, founder and CEO of Schedulicity, Bozeman, MT. ?Up until now managing a wait list has been done manually.

?We have been doing online scheduling for small, independent businesses for 8 years?we've seen 60 million transactions come through our business,? he said. ?It makes sense that large chain restaurants are following suite and recognize the importance of the mobile experience.

?We are surprised it has taken so long for them to automate this process and to find an alternative to pen and paper.?

Final Take
Alex Samuely is an editorial assistant on Mobile Marketer, New York