How to Better Understand the Mindset of a Guest

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

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Marketers and behavioral psychologists spend their lives trying to get inside the mind of the consumer. There are companies that spend millions of dollars annually on research to predict trends in the market. Focus groups and surveys are being used at this very minute to understand what makes restaurant guests do what they do.

After more than three decades of working with restaurants and their guests, it’s actually not that complicated to understand. There are human behavior patterns that only years of observation can illuminate. At first it’s like a puzzle that you’ve never put together before; it takes time. However, the more you put the pieces of the puzzle back together, the easier it gets.

Back in the mid-’70s, John Grinder and Richard Bandler were observing the human puzzle of verbal and behavioral patterns from prominent therapists such as Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and famed hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, and came up with a pragmatic school of thought that they called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP. In essence, it’s a study of how our words and our brain work together to create the dynamics of human behavior.

If you want to understand the guest’s mindset, then understand how humans are wired to process and receive information. Let’s take a look at a few key concepts from NLP.

Perception/Projection

Have you ever driven to a restaurant after a long road trip and the first thing you did was visit the bathroom? If the bathroom is dirty, what’s your perception of the rest of the establishment? Most people would assume a dirty bathroom equals a dirty kitchen. Is it true? Maybe not. However, perception is projection, which means if you think it’s true, then it’s true for you. Is that fair? No. Does it happen? Yes.

Now, you walk up to the hostess who glances up at you without a smile and greets you with a number. “Two?” Your perception might be that she is rude or condescending. Is it true? Probably not, but once again, perception trumps reality.

Once we form an opinion in our head, another psychological anomaly kicks in. It’s called confirmation bias — we look for things that reinforce our opinion. The hostess did not smile, greeted us rather coldly, and led us to our table. There, we sat for what seemed like 20 minutes (in reality, probably only 4-5) to be approached by a rushed server who does not smile either. Our brain quickly reacts by throwing another log on the cognitive fire. “See, they’re all rude.”

That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the small details at the beginning of the guest experience. Those little riffs cause more damage than you can imagine. It leads your guest(s) down the path to a negative experience. Usually, only exceptional food and service can bring them back in.

Looping

Neuroscientists estimate that our brain processes 60,000 thoughts a day, and that most of them repeat or loop in our heads. The problem with a loop is that it continues to cycle until the loop is solved.

Have you ever gone to the store for milk and, once you’re in the store, are distracted by all the other items that capture your attention? You pay, get in the car, and are almost home when you remember, “I forgot the milk!” Welcome to the world of brain loops.

For those restaurants that like to train their staff to introduce themselves when they first walk up and greet a table, here’s the reason to stay away from that:

Your guests already have a loop in their head when they come into your establishment. It’s food and drink, food and drink, food and drink. Until you solve the loop and give them some food and drink, most guests don’t care what your name is. Once your team closes the loop, the brain is more susceptible to new information like, “By the way, my name is Ray and I’ll be taking care of you this evening.” Sometimes timing truly is everything.

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Human Needs

People don’t like to take chances. If you study human needs theory, you’ll see that there are six human needs that every person on the planet has a drive to meet. While we all have the same six needs, how we value those needs, the priority we place them in, and how we go about fulfilling those needs is what separates us and makes us unique.

One of those needs is the need for certainty. We need to feel like we’re in control and know what’s coming next so that we can feel secure about it. Certainty taps into what psychologists call “social proof.” We want to know that we made a good decision, hence the popularity of online review sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor. 

If you want to ease guest anxiety, the best thing to do is train your team to make sincere menu recommendations. Generally, you want to make two recommendations.

The first should be a personal recommendation. Basically, you like it — a lot. “The duck confit beignets with chipotle maple syrup are my favorite!” The second recommendation should be based on social proof. Here, you are recommending or talking about what is the most popular or best-selling. “The orange cider glazed rib bites are our No. 1 seller. They sell out all the time!”

This only works if your recommendations are truly sincere. If it’s not sincere, it’ll come across as trying to upsell or manipulate them. When you’ve done that, you’ve broken rapport. Break rapport and you dissolve trust. Dissolve trust and you’ve lost a guest.

Understanding the guest’s mindset is not that difficult if you would just put yourself in their shoes. Many restaurant owners make the mistake of thinking they know what the guest wants. Most don’t because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a guest. They get so caught up in the day-to-day of their own operations, they’ve lost insight and connection to what it means to be a guest in their own business. There’s an old saying that “the devil is in the details,“ and for those in the restaurant industry, nothing rings quite as true as that.