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We already know that user reviews can determine the fate of a restaurant: anyone who has eaten at a restaurant can leave a permanent digital footprint of their impressions, assessments and judgments. Whether they’re positive or negative, reliable or even true or false. Online critiques are a potential weapon in the hands of customers: but why not try the opposite? What would happen, in other words, if restaurants started rating their customers?
For some time now some in the restaurant industry have been calling for this rating not to be one-way only anymore. It would in fact be useful for restaurants to know what type of customer is coming to its tables, especially in terms of reservations: last-minute cancellations, no-shows, people who show up but with only half the number of people reserved for. And the real risk that some of the booked tables – averaging between 10% and 20% - may not actually be occupied leads to unpleasant situations, like overbooking: this means that people who have booked a table the proper way, in advance and keeping their promise, will have to stand in line and wait for the sought-after table.
In short, something is not right, and for at least a year now this part of the reservation system has come under the scrutiny of Silicon Valley nerds. From simple booking via app – to name just one, OpenTable – they have moved on to Phase 2, which involves – need we say it? – turning all this into a money-making idea. Starting from the concept that the most popular restaurants generate hordes of potential customers frustrated by the fact they are unable to get their spot in the sun, and that unlike most goods and services, the reservations market has not yet been served up to the top bidder, applications started popping up like mushrooms – from Resy to Table 8, from Reserve to Killer Rezzy to SeatMe – selling tables for pay, with or without the participation and acceptance of restaurant owners, who sometimes make money from the transactions and at other times may be completely unaware of it.
Understandably, many people turn up their noses at the idea, but it underscores the imbalance that actually exists in this area between people who want to go out for dinner and assume that they are paying for the meal and not the chair, and the people who are offering it but with no guarantee that it will be vacant. One solution might be the pilot system featured by the owners of two exclusive Chicago restaurants, Next and Alinea: paying to make the reservation online, but then deducting that sum from the final tab – it seems that this approach has reduced the no-show rate to under 2%. Meanwhile, OpenTable and other apps are already rating users, and anyone who steps out of line – for example, by not showing up at the table a certain number of times in a single year after making reservations, or cancels at the last moment – is rejected and their account is closed (but another can always be opened under other guises).
The next step is already in the works: reservation software that includes a more complete and complex rating of the customer, like those used in systems like AirB&B for homes or Uber for vehicles. Not just whether they kept their reservations, but critiques and comments on how they behaved, perhaps even on the tip left, if any. A rating system that rewards good customers rather than simply punishing the bad ones. It’s being worked on but still has to be launched in the marketplace: so soon there could also be customers with ratings of four-and-a-half stars or five stars out of five, for whom the restaurateur will gladly prepare a table in the top spot at 8:00 pm on a Friday evening, with a well-earned view of the sea. And the rest? They will have to work hard to build up a good reputation. Because a good meal (and a good seat) have to be earned.