Many factors go into a customer's overall experience, and neglecting any one aspect of your restaurant experience could seriously affect your reputation. From the atmosphere of your restaurant to each dish, creating the proper customer experience can help build your restaurant's brand and solidify its position within your city or market.
Most business owners overlook one major aspect of setting an atmosphere: sound. Sound is a building block for the feeling at your restaurant. Too often, consumers' experiences are ruined by unpleasant or anxiety-inducing sounds.
"We know that sound has such a huge impact on the experience that people have and that it's important to consider sound in isolation, as it affects everything," said Kevin Perlmutter, executive vice president and chief of innovation with Man Made Music. "Subconsciously, sound is moving past the rational part of our brain and into the subconscious, causing us to react instantaneously. It really gives us a first impression of the situation we're in – even before we have the chance to rationalize what we're thinking about."
Man Made Music and Perlmutter specialize in crafting sound and building sonic brands for different companies. While large corporations enlist the help of firms like Man Made Music to create a sonic identity, Perlmutter said that small businesses can take the right steps toward building an atmosphere and brand identity using only their iPods.
"You need to be able to control the experience that you're presenting to your customers," Perlmutter said. "Even if it's as simple as … plugging in your iPod into the speaker, as long as it's done from that (sound) strategy, then it's going to be better than leaving it to chance."
Perlmutter had some additional tips for all business owners to better use sound and build a restaurant's atmosphere. He said that the most important aspect, however, is approaching your business by thinking critically about your own customers' experience.
1. Experience the environment like a customer.
The first step to understanding how your business can better use sound involves entering your establishment and isolating the different sounds in your business. "You need to think about the environment like a customer would, and you need to really focus on whether or not the sound is annoying or helpful," Perlmutter said. "Is it pleasing, or is it causing emotional distress?"
Avoiding emotional distress should be your No. 1 priority as a business owner. The goal of creating a good sonic environment is to make your guests feel comfortable so they spend more time in your restaurant and get a better understanding of your brand. There are a few marquee sounds that could cause emotional distress.
As you walk into your restaurant, pay attention to music, loud appliances, the volume of the overall environment and other general sounds throughout the space. Take note of the materials covering the walls and floors of your restaurant as well. Hard surfaces like wood reflect sound and can make a clinking glass across the room sound like it's right in front of you.
Think about the kind of atmosphere you want your restaurant to have. As an entrepreneur, you've worked hard to grow and establish your business along the lines of your own vision. The atmosphere – whether slow, fast, intense or relaxing – should reflect that. Identifying and understanding the sources of noise throughout your restaurant will allow you to pinpoint and decide which sounds you need to foster and which you need to change.
2. Remove sonic trash.
Sonic trash is any excess noise that can cause emotional distress. Perlmutter said that sonic trash can originate from multiple sources, including in-house appliances, wooden or hard interior surfaces, and even door sensors. These unintended noises snap the customer out of their daily routine and ingrain a sense of unease in an instant. By removing these sounds, you can keep your customers relaxed and attentive.
For example, a lot of restaurants have a sound for when customers enter the building – often in the form of chimes or bells that ring and bang when a door opens and closes. Perlmutter said that while this could be a good idea to alert employees to a customer entering, loud bells directly in a customer's ear could start their experience at your restaurant off on the wrong foot.
Another source of sonic trash is in-house appliances such as blenders, fryers or chattering glasses. These loud noises can disturb patrons and dull their senses. If you can avoid filling customers up with negative sounds, you can introduce them to music and sound that fits your overall brand and atmosphere.
"Once you've identified all of that annoying sound, I would do things to make it less annoying," Perlmutter said. "I would mask unwanted sound."
In rooms with a lot of hard surfaces, especially wood, incorporating carpet or cloth can dull the source noise in the restaurant. Partitions can break up sounds and create separation between zones. Door sensors – whether bells, chimes or an electronic sound – can be changed or removed so that a customer can transition into your space without an abrupt noise. Overall, it's important to remove as much of the sonic trash in your establishment as possible. This will allow you to work with a clean slate when building a sound brand.
3. Commit to better sound.
Once you've identified and removed the negative sounds from your restaurant, start thinking about what sounds you want to use to build a better customer experience. "The starting point for that is being strategic; it's thinking about how you want people to feel," Perlmutter said. "When people enter the environment, what is your intended emotion?"
Building the right sound for your business includes finding the right music and sound to incorporate into your space. Another important aspect is creating different sound zones. As customers move through your restaurant, they should feel different ways in different areas. If they are near a bar area, for example, they should hear different music from when they are in a formal dining area.
Creating and integrating different zones through sound is a challenge. By morphing two areas, you can create a noisy atmosphere that's almost too much for customers. That's why partitions and cloth or soft material that can absorb sound are crucial. If you have a completely open space, you can position white noise machines and speakers to direct the noise to specific areas.
Either way, by creating two distinct zones, you can evoke feelings and moods based on where a patron is. This is important depending on what kinds of experiences you want your guests to have in various areas.
The other way you can build overall sound in your restaurant is to use a third-party music service. Soundtrack Your Business is Spotify's business version. It features playlists that you can search and set based on speed, mood, and overall tone. This creates playlists of music geared toward mood instead of familiarity.
4. Don't leave music to chance.
One of the worst things you can do as a business owner is to not focus on sound in your business and leave music to chance. This means playing whatever music comes to mind – whether it's the top 40 or another random genre that isn't geared toward your business.
Perlmutter said another thing to avoid is allowing employees to plug in their phones or iPods and play whatever music they want over the loudspeaker. People have very distinct tastes when it comes to music. By playing a genre geared toward your brand, you can connect with people on an emotional level without turning them off with an employee's favorites.
"Music and sound are very personal, and people have a lot of opinions about what they personally like and don't like," Perlmutter said. "In a restaurant environment, it's not about what you like – it's about what your brand should sound like and the experience you want to create for your customers."
While employees shouldn't play their own personal music, they should still have a say in what plays. It's miserable for an employee to have to listen to the same playlist of songs every day, especially if they play at the same time of day. By keeping a good mix going, business owners can keep both their employees and their customers happy.
"It's really important to consider employees," Perlmutter said. "Consider the fact that they have to be there eight hours a day or more, and you don't want to repeat things over and over again. You can't do that to people. You can't make them listen to the same stuff every day and expect them to be happy."
5. Consider a branded music and sound strategy.
Once you create a consistent atmosphere with sound, you can even begin to incorporate branded music and sound specifically geared toward your business. You can incorporate brand announcements, brand-specific sounds and other business-oriented music into your soundtrack to further your brand. This strategy can be as simple as ringing a bell when a customer signs up for a rewards card. By celebrating that customer's commitment, you can encourage others.
"There are lots of ways music and sound can be thought of in a branded and proprietary way that gives you an exclusive experience that your customers have in your environment," Perlmutter said.
How to tell if it's working
Perlmutter said the best way to understand if your business is properly using sound is to simply ask customers. This can come in the form of a survey, or by simply asking customers how their experience was once they finish eating or shopping. The key, however, is to not specifically address sound.
"I wouldn't necessarily ask them specifically about the music or sound in the first couple of questions," he said. "But if you need to dig a little bit deeper to get into it, it's about the experience – it's not about the sound."
There are other ways to gauge how sound is impacting your business. You can track sales during each type of music, review how long customers remain at their table or in your store, and monitor whether customers are spending more time and money in your establishment.
Regardless of how you approach sound, the key is to think about it critically. If you leave music to chance, you could end up turning customers off on a completely subconscious level. While there are a lot of ways to control sound in your establishment, some things are out of your control. For these sounds, it's important to just do your best at masking them while playing up the sounds that you've incorporated into your business.
No matter how you approach sound, make sure you take advantage of its potential. "There's a lot that can be achieved on the positive side if you think about it and you do it right," Perlmutter said. "And there's a lot of negative that can go wrong if you ignore it."