As restaurants continue to deal with staffing shortages affecting the entire industry, they are inevitably looking for ways to improve the employee experience. Measures such as better pay, attractive benefits and flexible hours may attract more workers, but they do not quite solve the overall labor challenge.
Restaurants that can’t find the workers they need need to figure out how to make the most of the staff they already have. It’s not that easy either; the efficiency you can derive from your operations is limited.
Surprisingly, improving the customer experience can go a long way in alleviating staffing issues. The virtual queue offers the opportunity to impress and delight customers while improving the employee experience and increasing the efficiency of your restaurant.
What is Virtual Queue?
When a restaurant is crowded and there are more customers than there are tables and/or staff to accommodate them, people will be forced to wait their turn for service. They will likely give their name to a host and wait to be called. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – when you have enough staff to handle the crowds and an efficient plan to seat and serve waiting customers in a timely manner, you can call it a successful day.
However, waiting is not always a good experience for customers. Trying to find a place to sit in the lobby, wondering why that party sat down before you, worrying about not hearing your name called – all of this and more causes customers stress. The longer the wait, the more stress they feel. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this stress; all it takes is a cough from an unmasked person to make other customers wonder, “Is it worth it?”
The virtual queue streamlines the process by allowing customers to check in on their phone, either via a QR code or text message, or, if needed, with the help of a host. They will receive updates on their smartphones on how long they have been waiting and when their table is about to be ready.
More importantly, customers in the virtual queue can leave the restaurant and have a more concrete idea of when to return. In this digital lasso, they can walk around, visit nearby stores, have a drink at the bar, or do anything other than wait in a cramped lobby.
The virtual queue is not a ringing system…
Some restaurants are already using electronic queuing technology: a bell system in which customers check in with the host, receive a pager, and are notified when their table is ready. Although the strategy has its advantages over a host yelling at the crowd, “Smith, threesome!” it is not a virtual queue.
For starters, most pagers only have a limited range which can be hampered by several factors including building architecture and the battery charge of the pager itself. People might gain some freedom to go out, but they won’t be able to go far, and if the wait takes a while, customers might wonder if the pager is working, come back inside and ask the host which takes so long.
This shortcoming raises a bigger deficiency of buzzers: they cannot provide an accurate wait time to customers. The virtual queue not only estimates customers’ waiting time, but also sends updated estimates to their phones. People don’t have to guess when to return, and they don’t ask hosts when they might be seated.
Of course, you don’t want to discourage communication. Virtual queuing systems allow interactions so customers can make requests (e.g. add the number of people at the table, request a high chair or wheelchair accessible table, etc.) from the app. Staff can ask waiting customers questions or send quick messages as needed.
The system can also send promotions to customers while they wait. Promotions can be as simple as notifications about a new menu item or special holiday times, or they can be tied to the expectation of the customer themselves. For example, if a wait lengthens unexpectedly, the platform’s rules engine can automatically send a notification apologizing for the delay and offering a free appetizer once the party is finally seated.
Finally, buzzer systems always carry a risk of mechanical failure or lost pager. An angry customer who gives up waiting can steal, throw or destroy the pager. Most virtual queuing systems are SaaS platforms, which require no additional hardware on the front-end or in the hands of customers.
Managing a crowded lobby of customers waiting to be seated takes a lot of effort from your staff. Hosts have to deal with people giving their name to join the waitlist, people asking and asking again how long the wait is, and people who might not hear their name called immediately, while maintaining the flow of customers to the tables.
Virtual Queue automates much of this process so employees can focus on getting people settled as efficiently as possible. Distractions are kept to a minimum as customers get the information they need on their smartphone. Employees already have key information, so when a party is seated, their table and any special requests are ready. With an already tight staff, if you can dedicate fewer staff to the lobby and get the same, if not better results, you get more with less. Even a few minutes saved during each customer interaction can add up to considerable time and labor during the day.
Besides immediate management needs, virtual queuing increases efficiency by collecting important data. The system can show average wait times, busiest days and times, how long customers wait before abandoning the queue and going elsewhere, special requests you receive the most often, etc. This information is ideal for planning staffing needs, including the number of employees needed per shift, the number of additional employees to hire, and the training they should receive.
Improve the employee experience
No employee likes to feel overwhelmed by their job, and managing a crowd of customers waiting to be seated is often overwhelming. The virtual queue makes life easier for hosts who can let the system handle most of the process, from checking in customers to letting them know their table is ready. Employees won’t necessarily have less work to do, but they can make better use of their time and feel empowered, which benefits their well-being as well as the company as a whole.
The pandemic has impacted the employee experience in the restaurant industry. Customers are more restless and employees are less likely to stay in jobs where the people they serve are consistently disrespectful. Prioritizing the customer experience with the virtual queue inevitably trickles down to the employee. Virtual queuing systems can:
Allow customers to wait on their own terms
Keep customers informed
Send an apology to customers if they leave the queue
Let a manager know if a recently seated group has been waiting a long time so the manager can thank them for their patience
Invite customers to complete a survey about their dining experience
These abilities show customers that you value their well-being. And when customers feel valued, they generally treat the people who serve them with more respect. Respected employees are not afraid to come to work every day. When you face a staffing shortage, it can make all the difference in retaining and developing your best workers.