Ok, not entirely true. I’ve learned a lot from books, blogs, Twitter, webinars and practice. But once during an Awareness Inc. webinar David Carter said, “Everything I learned about social media, I learned as a waiter.” I don’t think he expected anyone to put as much weight into that sentence as I did. It dawned on me that part of the reason I took so wholeheartedly to social media is that I’ve been operating with its principles for years. I’m going to examine some of these principles in restaurant terms, but they apply to any organization.

Word-of-mouth marketing

It’s the most effective (or potentially destructive) marketing tool for restaurants, as it is for all companies and organizations. Being the hot new place is great, but the buzz will fade unless we back it up with food and service that’s worth talking about, for years. We want to be the place that tourists mention to others traveling to our city, that friends talk about at parties, and that colleagues discuss at work. We are also aware of the lasting power of negative word-of-mouth.

Integrity at all costs

Never ever lie or mislead your staff or guests. Be honest and trustworthy. If your salmon is farmed, admit it, don’t pretend it’s wild. If you anticipate an hour wait for a table, disclose it, don’t fool them into thinking it will only be 30 minutes. Don’t date your cocktail waitresses. Have high standards. Do what’s right, always.

(photo by staxnet/Flickr)

(photo by staxnet/Flickr)

The customer is right, even when they’re not

We cringe at that old phrase, but the customer’s perception is their reality. You have to start from there. If someone has a bad experience and isn’t satisfied with our response, we have just created a walking nightmare. However, we can turn them into a raving evangelist if we figure out the right thing to do for them, and then do a little more. This is no time for egos. It’s about them, not us. How do we fix it?

It’s all about relationships

What does every restaurant want? Repeat guests. One visit is appreciated, but we can’t succeed for long if they only come once. We can make that easier if we create relationships. Be a personality not a brand.

  • Welcome your new guests. They’re taking a chance on you — make them feel appreciated and comfortable.
  • Nurture your regulars — your evangelists. They will do your marketing for you –- reward them for that. Stroke their egos in front of their friends. Give them special treatment.
  • Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated. Even better, the way you would like your grandmother to be treated – the golden rule.

Look and listen

  • Scan the room. Are your guests happy to be here? Look at their faces, their body language, their interactions, and their tables. Anticipate their needs –- that’s the key.
  • Listen to what people are saying about you and respond to it, the good and the bad. Accept criticism and learn from it. Put your pride and ego aside and make things right.

Your staff determines your success

  • Trust your gut when you hire staff. Do they want to learn? Do they really like people? Are they positive personalities? Do they care?
  • Educate your staff. Create a culture of knowledge that they will share with guests. Encourage and recognize those who demonstrate that knowledge. We had oyster-tasting contests, wine and beer seminars, and fish school. We made it fun and ended up with the smartest and most loyal wait staff in town.
  • Trust and empower your staff. Give them guidelines to follow so they can make customer service decisions on the spot. If you’ve done right by them up to now, they’ll do the right thing.

Pay it forward

Be a good citizen. Give back to the community that supports your business. Join your local chamber or business group. Find a cause that you and your staff feel passionate about and partner with that organization to raise funds and awareness. Show the world that you are more than just a brand or a storefront; you have a personality and a heart.

Were you thinking about your customers or members when you read this? If not, go back and translate these restaurant scenarios into your organization’s perspective. Before incorporating social media into your culture, make sure you are comfortable with these principles. They’ve been around forever, but in the new Web 2.0 world, you can’t succeed without them.