I just read a fascinating piece about a New York restaurant, whose owners couldn’t understand why they kept getting such bad online reviews. The food wasn’t a problem, but clearly the service was – how long it was taking, wait times for tables etc. But as they’d recently shortened the menu and employed more staff, it just didn’t add up. To help them understand what was happening, they watched some 10-year-old CCTV tapes, and compared an average nights’ service from 2004 to a recent evening. Both evenings were similar in terms of number of customers, day of week etc.

Back in 2004, their customers spent an average of 8 minutes choosing from the menu, sent 2 items back and left 5 minutes after paying. The average duration of their visit was just over an hour.

In 2014, however, they took an average 21 minutes to order, sent back 9 items and left over 20 minutes after paying. The average duration of their visit was almost 2 hours.

So what was happening? Were they having a much better time now? Had the food and ambience improved so much that they’d doubled their dwell time? Or maybe it was something to do with the recession, and the need to get their money’s worth?

No. Quite simply, they were all too busy playing with their phones.

From the moment they walked in, they were fiddling about trying to join the WiFi, asking the waiter to take groups photos, Instagramming pictures of the dishes (which were subsequently going cold – hence the increased number going back to the kitchen) and Foursquaring and Tweeting their location. On the way out, they were still so distracted by their screens that they physically bumped into other guests and staff on the way out.

The impact of smartphones on the restaurant sector can’t be underestimated – the fact that everyone is now a restaurant critic or a food blogger is both a blessing and a curse – but when it starts to affect service levels, what do you do? Ditch the free WiFi? That may lose customers (and a useful source of customer data) and won’t deter those using 4G anyway. Ask people to be more considerate? Be stricter about turning tables? Certainly putting the WiFi password on the menu would save people having to ask their server for it every five minutes. Or you could follow the example of the LA café that offered diners a discount if they checked their phones in at the door…

I believe it all comes down to communications – what you say in your POS, how your teams communicate with customers – and this is wholly dependant on the type of restaurant you run and the social media presence you’ve established. You need to set and manage your customers’ expectations in line with your brand experience. In other words, if your Twitter feed is reliant on happy customers posting selfies of themselves enjoying your cocktails, you can’t mind too much if they spend hours hogging a table while they take, upload, share and comment on each other’s photos. If you don’t even have a Twitter feed, maybe you can take a more ‘old-fashioned’ approach.

Either way, it’s a digital etiquette minefield. If you need some help navigating through it, just give me a call.