Restaurant CRM 101: What Is a CRM? Benefits and Best Software Solutions

It stands for 'customer relationship management,' but that's just the beginning.
June 8, 2021, 07:24 PM UTC
Restaurant CRM 101: What Is a CRM? Benefits and Best Software Solutions

When we visit restaurants these days, we can leave a large digital footprint. Swiping our credit card, logging onto the house WiFi network, ordering from a QC code at our table, paying on a touch screen at the register — heck yes, let’s sign up for the rewards program, why not? Increasingly we leave a data trail when we pay for brunch or for after-work drinks, and increasingly as well, we interact with restaurants in fully digital spaces. Whether someone is logging into their favorite delivery app to reach you, whether they’re clicking through your website to find your menu, or whether they’re reserving a table online, they’re creating comet tails of data, just full of potential for your operation.

In fact, there’s too much data for anyone to sift through without help from software — especially for small businesses that have at least several locations. That’s why restaurants reach for a CRM to help with the task. CRMs come in a lot of shapes and sizes, and many will be embedded with your POS platform or as part of some other software. In any case, the best CRM solutions will let you analyze the customer data that you’re creating all day long. Getting ahold of that data can be another story, if you’re outsourcing functions like delivery to third parties. But in any event, for restaurants that do any sort of digital marketing, a CRM is going to be the tool that informs the best decisions on the smallest spend.

But just what is a CRM? What’s the point of getting one? And what are the real-world applications of a software that holds piles of data about how people actually engage with your restaurant? Here, in a nut, is how you can figure out whether a CRM is right for you, and then maybe even pick one to examine further from there.

What is a restaurant CRM?

A CRM is short for “customer relationship management,” a software that offers data insights to help you understand and keep in touch with your customers. Think of it as an automated database that collects, cleans, and analyzes as much information as it can gather about people who’ve spent money at your restaurant — who they are, what they like to order, how to contact them — and helps you figure out ways to keep them returning for more visits. Used well, it’s a tech solution that lets you market directly to existing customers in ways that save you money, boost your brand, and appeal to what your customers actually want from you.

What are the benefits of a CRM for your restaurant?

The best CRMs ought to simplify your life, save you time, and make you money. A good restaurant CRM software will consolidate varied data streams into something you can interpret easily and act upon.

Your CRM should also make it easy to email or text your customers, to promote new specials, to gently say hello if you haven’t seen them in a while, or to reward them with a discount or a freebie if you just want to say thanks. If you want to offer a rewards or loyalty program, there’s a good chance your CRM will be your platform for running it. Large businesses use extremely complex CRMs, but these days plenty of small business CRMs can give you a better idea of who your customers are, even if you’re talking about a customer base in the hundreds rather than in the millions. And having that information will give you an advantage if you ever do dream of scaling up.

As more commerce and ordering happens online, too, the best restaurant CRM solutions help you build relationships that are by their nature much tougher to make tangible. The people who walk in your front door, say hello to your staff, take their favorite seat, and chat up the regulars at the bar — they might not need you to do much to make them feel at home. But the person sitting on their sofa, swiping around their phone trying to decide from among 40 takeout options for dinner? The person who hasn’t ever seen your restaurant in real life (or who doesn’t know that you’re actually a ghost kitchen)? That person might not feel any connection to your operation beyond convenience. So using the data available to you to decide how to market to that person so that they become a repeat customer? You’re going to need a CRM for that, unless you just want to send blast emails into the void or stuff coupons into paper delivery bags.

A strong restaurant CRM will also help you keep track of your ad spending and your returns on the dollars you’re throwing at social media. What’s the point of buying all those restaurant Facebook ads or going hard at restaurant Instagram if you can’t quantify your return on investment? No one likes spending a single dollar on marketing that they don’t have to. A good CRM will help you figure out where is your best ROI on your social media marketing.

What to look for in the the best CRM software

How big do you want to go, and how fast? There’s no one “best” across-the-board CRM software any more than there’s a best delivery vehicle for your business — it’s going to depend on a number of factors. Obviously you’re going to want to consider the price, the customer service, and the return you’re going to get on your investment. The questions to ask yourself before you get started, then, are around what you need.

Are you just opening up your first location and want to get a CRM that works in concert with your POS? Then you might look at the likes of Toast, Square, RezPlus, SevenRooms, or Revel. Or maybe you’re already off and running, and looking to get more advanced insights from softwares that go beyond your POS and include the likes of your inventory control system, your reservation platform, your delivery platforms, and the other myriad programs you have plugging into your restaurant? Then you might check out Bikky or Wisely. In any event, as you start quizzing sales reps from these software companies, you want to align your needs, capabilities, and ambitions with their ability to inform those. 

How to use a CRM for your restaurant

You probably got into hospitality, at some level, to make sure whoever visits your establishment has a great time and leaves happy. Well, a CRM is a tool to ensure that you can do that with the full knowledge of what that person’s orders, spending, and habits — the time of day they visit, how many are in their party, what locations they visit, how they like to pay, and how they prefer (if at all) to be contacted.

The upshot of all of this: It lets you treat everyone who comes to your restaurant like a high roller, or at least a regular. Someone who shows up for happy hours and spends on the company card might get an offer for free appetizers. Another customer who likes to bring a date once a month and have exactly two cocktails apiece might get an email when your new drink menu debuts. A person who always brings along someone who orders off the kids menu might get a promo code for some free kid-sized merch from your online store. A person who drops a thousand dollars on a dinner party three times a year gets a thank-you email directly from your head of catering. A person who lives five blocks away and always orders delivery gets an automated text message offering 15% off a sit-down meal. A vegan customer gets an email showing off your new veggie burger with sweet potato fries. If you use your imagination, you’ll be able to meet your customers exactly where they are.

You can also aggregate what you’re learning from all of this to understand and grow your customer base. You’ll be able to find patterns in what you’re offering, what people are buying, when and where they like to show up, and what they spend. A powerful CRM, in other words, is going to help you make decisions that will affect the rest of your business: hiring, scheduling, menu creation, what you stock in the kitchen and at the bar, the hours you stay open, and perhaps even whether you open a new location.

[Photo by Maxwell Jayes on Unsplash]