What can be done to ensure that customers return to a bar (again and again)?

By Jan-Peter Wulf

It is a well-known fact that regular customers are absolutely essential for practically any bar concept. But what specific steps can be taken to turn first-time patrons into regulars? Oron Lerner has lots of helpful suggestions.

Not only is Lerner the Bar Manager at the ‘Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar’ in Tel Aviv, but he also holds a degree in organizational psychology and works as a consultant for team development. At the digital BCB, he gave a presentation on a fascinating topic whose title was self-explanatory: ‘What makes a customer come back?’ Lerner distinguishes between three different approaches:

1. The experience is so good that the customer would like to repeat it

When a bar not only meets the expectations of a customer, but actually exceeds these, the patron experiences a thrill and a feeling of happiness. This causes the customer to let go of their inner restraint and toss out their previous plans to spend no more than a certain amount (the familiar intention to have ‘just one drink’). In order to let go of their reservations like this, a patron has to feel trust. And according to Lerner, one way to create this trust, for example, is by immediately accepting the return of a drink and serving a new one if a customer is dissatisfied – no questions asked. This eliminates the disappointment of having made the wrong choice. Dealing resolutely with patrons who act inappropriately is another thing that builds trust.

There are also subtler methods of building trust that are important: communication and empathy. Lerner illustrates this using a simple example: there are two customers at opposite ends of the bar. Each orders the same drink. For the first customer, it’s too sour – for the second customer, it’s too sweet. After all, taste is individual. Lerner encourages his teams to adapt recipes whenever a bartender might think that their customer would prefer their drink to be a bit more, or less, sour, for example. The bartender can obtain this information by talking with their patrons, as well as through the ability to put themselves in their customers’ shoes – perhaps even subconsciously deciding to change the mixture. The result: the customer feels like their drink has been created especially for them. And it really has been.

As a credentialed psychologist, Lerner refers here to the ‘error correction paradox’: a customer is less likely to remember an evening where everything went smoothly than they are an evening where a mistake was made or something went wrong. How can this have a positive impact on a customer’s likelihood of making a return visit? If the mistake is corrected, a best-case scenario is possible where the patron has a positively memorable evening.

2. The feeling that theres so much more to do here
Lerner says that another way in which a feeling of ‘connection’ can be created and the frequency of visits increased is by creating something that generates the feeling that ‘there’s so much more to do here.’ In his bar, this is achieved through the drinks that are placed on the menu. Not only is there something for every taste to be found, but each drink also opens the door for the customer to try other, similar creations – these cannot be found on the menu, but they are happy to serve them. In fact, the ‘Imperial’ even offers its own ‘achievement program’: certain drinks, such as the ‘Zombie’, can only be ordered by patrons who have made a return visit to the establishment. Customers may also be given little gifts, depending on how much they tip, or invitations to the annual birthday party for regulars. And people who show up in particularly fancy attire can look forward to a special treat.

3. Create an emotional attachment
According to Lerner, many customers establish a close relationship with a particular bartender. Even so, however, a bar is defined by teamwork, and each bartender should do their part to promote the development of long-term relationships with customers. At the ‘Imperial’, staff make use of an ‘after-shift report’ in which each bartender enters notes for specific tables or guest(s), including answers to the following questions: What did they think of their drinks? Why did they come to this bar? They even set aside a personal note to these guests, which the bartender ensures that they get a few days after their visit. This not only serves to generate customer loyalty, but also helps the bartenders to establish a personal connection with patrons and serves as a foundation for talking with them, says Lerner. As he puts it, it is much easier to have a conversation with a customer if you can discover something in common.

4. Everyone is a VIP
Regulars in the ‘Imperial’ receive exclusive invitations, or reservations even when the bar is already fully booked. Lerner says that they also try to apply the special treatment they give to regular customers to newcomers. One way in which they do this is with reservations – if they are given any information about an orange allergy, for example, this information is passed on to all the bartenders on that shift in a memo. Addressing customers by their first names also helps to make them feel more comfortable and appreciated in the bar – that they belong there. Lerner refers to this as the ‘secret handshake’ – the creation of a deeper bond between the customer and the bar.

His experiences with the coronavirus lockdown are also of interest: by doing such things as inviting regular customers to take part in digital team tastings or sending them ‘liquid mail’, they were able to increase the frequency of visits after the lockdown was lifted, says Lerner.

5. Tips for colleagues

At the end of his talk, Lerner supplied a few more tips for both the tactical and strategic levels. He recommends:

- maintaining a comprehensive list of all regular customers and updating this on a regular basis to ensure that it is accurate even when the team changes
- promoting bartenders who are particularly communicative/social to the position of ‘guest relations manager’ so that they can do even more to serve regular customers
- hiring people who are even more talented and better at dealing with patrons than you are wherever possible
- making sure that your bartenders and their requirements are top priority: if bartenders know that they enjoy your trust and that you have their backs, they will be sure to do a good job of looking after your customers.

According to Lerner, long-lasting relationships make it possible for the bar as a whole to become an influential source of community that can enrich and even improve the lives of its patrons.