The first contact a potential guest makes with a restaurant is what will keep them coming back
A casual enquiry about the price of the set lunch; a request for a copy of the menu; a reservation for two on a Saturday night.
From surprisingly small starts do lasting relationships between guest and restaurant grow. And central to this first exchange is that most underesteemed of personnel: the receptionist.
Anneliese Hainz, Reservations Director at Gordon Ramsay Holdings knows a thing a two about this. Her 26-strong team fields up to 3,000 calls a day for nine restaurants in the group.
Her job is not the usual reception job – a multi-tasking effort that involves seating people, taking coats and picking up the phone. Rather, it is office-based and dedicated to reservations and nothing else. Hainz concedes that, yes, taking all those requests (usually for a table for two at eight on a Saturday)
can get repetitive.
"I encourage everyone to laugh, smile, even wave their hands in the air while they talk, anything to encourage better communication,' she says. "You might not be able to see that I am smiling but you could certainly hear if I weren't."
Each day she'll put one person in charge of re-confirmation and one of overseeing the waiting list. Structuring job allocation not only aids consistency, but also means the reservationist doesn't get bored. Hainz insists that lunch breaks and 10 minute screen breaks get taken, and breaks up the day with other tasks so it's not all in front of the computer. "Otherwise people get grumpy and mistakes can happen," she says. "Mistakes I can deal with, but I don't ever want to hear that people are grumpy."
Hainz aims to have all calls picked up within 12 seconds, and says you won't get a busy tone unless they are ‘really, really overloaded'. Far better for the caller to be held in a queue knowing where they stand (‘for maybe half a minute') than to be left hanging.
Even if you're not lucky enough to have a dedicated reservations team, you can still scale down the approach to suit you. At the Kitchin in Edinburgh, manager Michaela Kitchin only allows those trained on the phone to use it to ensure total consistency. "The first impression is vital. It's when the excitement about going somewhere starts."
"As we get busier, the reception job involves more admin than before, so the hostess doesn't go on the floor at all," says Kitchin. "The hostess should be totally on top of the day's bookings.
It's about taking ownership of the task, and keeping the configuration of the table plan in your head no matter now many times it changes over the course of the day."
A good receptionist is an inquisitive one, says Raj Dagstani, GM at Per Se in New York.
"Our practice is looking for the little things.
We are constantly cultivating information and we allow ourselves the freedom to make decisions based on the individual guest's needs or desires, and tempering our experience to them."
In other words, the more information you get at the phone call stage, the more likely you are to satisfy the customer. Good manners and having a ‘smile in your voice' go a long way, believes Jane Turner, Reservations Manager at Plateau in London, but it's no substitute for getting the facts right. Date, time and location are just the beginning. A skilled reservationist will find out about the guest's allergies, birthdays, ‘even whether they like their martini shaken or stirred'. ‘Human error is unavoidable,' believes Turner. "So always read back information from the screen to the guest, then before service make sure copies of information go to the kitchen, to the floor manager and the section waiter and make a very strong point of any allergies."
"Remember, if anything goes adrift at our end, it will be the waiting staff who bear the brunt of it."
Tips - The reservation game
- Smile while you talk – although this may sound silly, it will make you sound more genuine.
- Check if there are any special requests or dietary requirements.
- Make sure that information gets to the chef or floor manager as required.
- Never guarantee a particular table; you might need to re-jig the table plan on the night.
- Repeat information back to the caller, straight off the screen or the page.
- Double-check phone numbers and correct spelling of names while the caller's still on the phone.
- Use the guest's name if you can, as it sounds more personal.
- If you can't offer a table or guarantee a certain time, tell the truth. Honesty really is the best policy.
- If you work shifts with a team of reception staff, take time to have a proper handover to discuss the service ahead.
- If you're at a desk all day, take a screen/phone break. Mistakes happen when you're bored and tired.
- Pick up within a few rings, so the customer isn't left on hold.
- Note out-of-town dialling codes; it helps you spot the first-timers.