Restaurants are Abandoning Their Phone Numbers

Diner at Restaurant on Smartphone

Restaurants Focus on Food - Not the Phone

Do you remember when you canceled your home phone in favor of just using your mobile device? Ah, the savings! Wasn’t it great when you found out that you could transfer your landline to be your new mobile number?  OK, so maybe you didn’t know that but it’s the only way I know my mother’s number. What was my childhood home phone number became mom’s mobile number when she left Virginia for sunny Florida. Sorry, dad, I haven’t memorized yours yet but you are in my favorites.

As of 2020, only 40% of US households have a landline phone – a huge drop from 90% in 2004, only 16 years prior.

But it’s not just homes cutting the cord. Some businesses are sans phone or choosing to not publish their number. A business without a phone number? Crazy!

Restaurants, in particular, have cheerfully jumped on the crazy train. But is this a one-off craziness or a new trend? Case in point: a recent New York Times Article chews over the fact that some restaurant owners simply don’t value phone conversations with their diners.

Top Reasons Some Restaurants Are No Longer Taking Calls
  • Callers take up too much time. Scheduling reservations or placing to-go orders can all be done online more efficiently now
  • Eliminating the phone frees up staff time so that they can focus on diners actually in the restaurant
  • Restaurant owners can reduce headcount by not paying for someone to simply answer the phone
New York Times Article About Restaurants
Hotel Greene, a phone-free restaurant, bar and mini-golf space in Virginia

Customer Engagement Preferences Are Changing

Customer communications have changed drastically over the past two decades, monumentally within the past two years. What were once phone-operated tasks are now handled via email, direct messages on social media and through reservations apps.

According to Salesforce’s 2020 Report, 76% of customers prefer different channels, depending on context, and 60% are open to using AI to fulfill their need. Leading the willingness charge to use AI are Millenials at 66% and Gen Z at 64%.

The COVID Impact

Why the surge by restaurants to consider alternative forms of communication instead of taking calls? COVID adjustments certainly had an impact on how consumers and businesses behave with 60% of survey respondents agreeing that “COVID-19 is changing my relationship with technology” and 68% now have elevated expectations of companies’ digital capabilities.

The pandemic changed attitudes on both sides, with restaurants more than happy to meet diner technology preference demands allowing them to dedicate more of their time taking care of customers who are actually in the dining room. Overall, they have found it easier to manage conversations via Instagram and email. Funny though, one of the restaurants mentioned by the New York Times, Bell’s in Santa Barbara County, California, admits that they check their smartphone throughout dining service – to look for emails. What’s old is new?

It's Hammer Time!

Restaurants have been quick to adopt new technologies that alleviate live customer interaction as it actually better serves their customers, helps them gain new ones and reduces staff workload. Robust websites with menus, online reservations and placing orders for takeout are designed for ease of use and allow restaurant owners to test drive what running their business might be like if all communications were digital.

But will other industries follow the restaurant trend and eliminate their phones? Service based businesses are at a disadvantage as they typically charge custom pricing after a needs assessment or on-site visit. Restaurants have fixed menu pricing making placing and fulfilling orders online a simple e-commerce transaction. For most services, the phone is their lifeblood for capturing new business.

With automation taking hold, which consumers will be the most forgiving being unable to call a business and hold a live conversation? The answer to that likely depends on what industries most lend themselves to a technology-focused sales and service approach.

Online car buying sites Carvana and Vroom, for example, are turning the car-buying experience on its head allowing shoppers to select, finance and purchase a car from their couch and have it delivered to their front door – all without talking to a human. Whether or not the days of visiting a showroom will eventually sunset forever, brands like Tesla already allow you to “order online for touchless delivery.” (Cue MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”.)

The Customer Perspective

It is true that phone calls can take up a lot of time – to the annoyance of both businesses and customers alike. Have you ever dealt with a clerk at a store who takes a call while you are in the middle of being checked out? Raise your hand if you want to scream when that happens. But, imagine being the clerk having to take a call and deal with a customer standing in front of you. Now, imagine being the caller wondering “why am I on hold for soooooo looooong???

I empathize with the business who finds the calls to be a distraction but, as a customer, I expect my call to be answered – immediately. Because I’m important!

These are not my feelings alone. Salesforce confirms that 83% of customers expect to engage with someone immediately when contacting a company — up from 78% in 2019. This takes into account all the channels that consumers use to reach out to a business with 54% of customers expecting businesses to expand the ways they can engage with them.

SMS, in particular, is trending into strong preference territory. Salesforce data shows that, in 2020, text/SMS heated up by four spots landing in seventh place on the list of customers’ 10 most preferred channels used to communicate with businesses. Messaging through WhatsApp and social media also increased in popularity. Meta shares that more than 1 billion people worldwide connect with business accounts weekly via Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

83 percent customers expect to engage immediately

Ugly Baby

The New York Times article shares the fascinating story of Thai restaurant, Ugly Baby, in Brooklyn, New York. Ugly Baby only communicates with its customers via Instagram. They have a phone number posted on their Trip Advisor listing but it just rings. And rings. And rings. They have a website. A very minimalist one. White screen with black Times New Roman font that directs visitors to their page for online reservations as well as lists their Instagram address. Not only do diners make their reservations online, they are also required to select their meal at the time of reservation. At least seven days in advance. They really do want to make this hard. Or do they?

For Ugly Baby, pushing diners to use their online reservations and pre-ordering works. They’re typically packed and their mostly Millenial or younger diners give them great reviews. The owner states that this system makes it easier for his small staff and helps maintain the low-key nature of his restaurant.

But does this limit their reach? Not everyone is on Instagram and not everyone will appreciate hearing about a great restaurant and then being faced with a potential digital roadblock. Reflecting the growing demand for customer engagement, 79% of consumers believe that the experience a company provides is as important as its product or services. (Salesforce)

Consider this – businesses that take calls continue to struggle with missing them (the average small business misses 30% of their calls) due to insufficient staffing or a lack of off-hours coverage. The phone can be a burden if not answered properly.

Turn On Your Phone And Ignore It - Successfully

What if small businesses could still have a phone but ignore it while still successfully engaging with their callers?

If you’re running a restaurant or other small business that is struggling to stay staffed or recognizes that what you spend on a person to take care of basic tasks could legitimately be handled by digital channels using automation at a fraction of the cost AND consumers are happy and, in many cases, prefer to communicate via those means, why wouldn’t you adjust how you do business?

Small businesses are increasingly discovering that automation handles not only basic tasks like appointment scheduling, online orders or reservations, but can also handle other routine tasks such as immediately answering questions about the business or taking messages. Agentz usage data for 2021 shows that 24% of customers prefer to engage with the automated assistant with less than 1% of those engagements resulting in a request for live help. Reducing front desk staff workload by almost a quarter while still serving those customers can be life-changing for some small businesses!

Imagine those phone-averse restaurants turning their phones back on and, when customers call, receive an automated message that converts their conversation to SMS allowing them to make reservations, ask questions about the restaurant such as “do you have parking on site?” or view a menu and place an order without ever talking to a human.  

For the 44% of the customers who feel that businesses need to incorporate technological solutions to make the customer’s life easier, this seems like a no-brainer.  Publish a phone number, “answer” calls using automation without involving your staff at all.

Customer Goodwill Matters

Technology solutions that support customer preferences blended with business limitations without degrading customer expectations and experience are available today. So, restaurants, turn your phones back on and let an automated assistant handle the calls for you. You will gain more costumers and realize more satisfied customers.  After all, Yelp matters to restaurants, too.

Top 5 Ways that Automated Assistants Can Help Restaurants
  1. Assist customers who prefer to start a conversation with a phone call
  2. Alleviate front desk staff workload or eliminate the need entirely
  3. Offer communication options that some costumes prefer
  4. Ensures that no customers are missed
  5. Provides consistent communication experiences across multiple channels – voice, SMS, website, messengers and social media

About Agentz

Our Mission – We exist to eliminate the need for SMB’s to respond to all calls, texts and inquiries live by providing an automated assistant that can intelligently communicate with customers, 24/7, when the business can’t so that they never miss another customer again.

The Agentz automated assistant is purpose-built to support SMBs who are struggling to keep up with customer demand. Automation can deftly provide personalized experiences for both sales and support requests in a time when consumers are expecting non-human communication options.

Agentz fulfills the latest trends in small business customer engagement automation including aiding these core business processes:

  • Seamless customer communications across SMS, social media, voice and websites
  • Self-serve capabilities for sales and customer service functions including appointment scheduling, AI-supported question answering, and taking messages Influencing interest in specific products and services
  • Encouraging customers to take specific actions. Things like booking a reservation, registering for an event, purchasing overstocked products, and reserving last minute hospitality offers

Contact us to learn how Agentz can help your agency, technology or SaaS company better service your restaurants or other small business clients.