Converting Customers to Guests: How to Build up Loyalty


In any customer based business, loyalty is a priceless commodity.

One of the most advantageous aspects of operating in independent hospitality, is that there is no particular set way to achieve success. It is an industry that champions innovation and we see all the time businesses achieve this success because they have developed and used models that are uniquely applicable to them. Instilling a sense of loyalty within your customers is key to achieving any degree of success in hospitality. Most chain businesses go about this with offering a copy and paste operation, meaning that customers know exactly what they’re in for. They also broadcast minor discounts, saving options, two for ones; the standard spread of incentives to bring someone back.

But to an independent hospitality business, loyalty within customers means a lot more. It can frankly be the difference between success and failure. Therefore it should be at the forefront of your approach and factored in to all aspects of your operation. So how exactly do you go about creating this palpable sense of loyalty, instilling a defiance within your customers that you are their go to?

We spoke to a variety of NCASS members to gain an informed picture as to fundamentals in building up customer loyalty.

In order to do that, you’ve got to start at the beginning and make sure that first and foremost, you are offering something of real quality. In Ed Baker’s wise words, ‘delivering premium quality goods, consistently, that meet or exceed customers’ expectations is the main factor behind creating a loyal customer base.’ It goes without saying, that as well as a good experience, premium quality goods will attract customers over and over again, and go a long way to building that bridge of loyalty for others to walk across.

Proprietor of Patty Freaks, Peter Hargreaves underlines a simple but very effective motto; ‘ we don’t have customers, we have guests.’ Straight away, a statement like that provides an insight into how the business views and values those who come and invest with them. Drilling that approach into the mentality of the business ripples through all aspects of the experience a customer gets when dining with you, and ultimately creates the feeling they have of being treated as a guest.

Jess from Fink’s builds on this notion, stating that ‘it’s all about the staff/customer relationship being genuine.’ You know when you walk into a chain establishment and the staff that greet you reel off a script they are clearly apathetic towards and the whole thing feels forced? It’s all about authenticity – people can often detect an artificial air straightaway and it can set a negative precedent for the rest of the experience.

Being genuine acts to cut through any sense of tension and disarms a customer so to speak. Sometimes people can be a little ‘on edge’ when trying somewhere new, so if you can detract from this and make them feel comfortable as soon as possible, it only bodes well. You cannot underestimate the value of ‘assuring customers that the relationship with the business is not transactional,’ in the words of Ed Baker.

Cut the pretence. Allow staff to be themselves, to feel comfortable at work and this will naturally translate to customers feeling comfortable, to feel more like a guest. Your staff should always be an asset to the business – of course you want people to come and engage with you for the food and/or drink you offer, but if customers come back because they get on really well with staff that is only a positive. You must look inwards to grow outwards as Jess from Fink’s accurately surmises: ‘when the team is made up of great people who feel empowered to be themselves they form real relationships with customers who then feel genuinely welcome, rather than processed.’

This is a point Ed Baker reiterates, as ‘customers will return for both the food and the chat, and more importantly they will be happy to become ambassadors of the business.’ Experience as a word is synonymous with memories, and memories are precious to all of us. Humans are emotional creatures at our core. If you can generate the potential to give your customers positive, endearing memories, they will be keen to repeat them and encourage others to also collate these memories.

Giving people a reason to come back is imperative to encouraging loyalty within a customer base. Incentives are a great way to do this – when done right. Gurt Wings buy into this philosophy, as James Mitchell explains, by ‘giving something back to customers who visit us regularly.’ To this end, they employ a literal loyalty scheme that carries a tangible and worthwhile reward when someone purchases from them numerous times. For example, ‘once they visit us 10 times they get a free large meal.’ James elaborates that their customers love this, and that ‘it has been one of the most successful loyalty schemes we have used in all our years of trading.’ Having been operating for almost a decade, that is a powerful statement.

This approach is borne out of the same core ethos each member touts here – providing real value from the customer’s point of view.

When you offer that and are able to foster the desired loyalty in your customer base, you are well on the way to creating ambassadors for the business, as Ed Baker states above. Ambassador status brings with it an organic growth that cannot be forced or otherwise manufactured, which is what makes it so fruitful. A fan of a band may listen to their albums on repeat, but a disciple wears their merchandise like a uniform, and is then at all times acting to spread their message and potentially introduce the band to no end of new people who will become potential fans and ambassadors themselves. It is a powerful ripple effect that every independent hospitality business can benefit from and should therefore try to instigate.

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