Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How Offering Free WiFi Affects Your Customer Experience

How Offering Free WiFi Affects Your Customer Experience

Posted by Joe Stanton on December 15, 2014


Whether or not to offer free WiFi has been an ongoing issue in the foodservice and hospitality industry for many years, although a clear-cut winner in the debate has yet to emerge. Some argue that providing this service is a great way to attract customers, while others don’t like the lengthened stays that may result and the impact on a business’s ability to turn over tables in a quick and profitable way.

There are a number of pros and cons. Looking at how other businesses have handled this issue may help you to determine how offering free WiFi can affect your customer experience.

Why to Avoid Free WiFi
Restaurant owners who claim that adding free WiFi has increased their traffic and overall business might be right – at least according to recent data reported by Small Biz Trends. According to their analysis:

61% of customers actively look for free WiFi in restaurants
45% of customers feel it’s important to have access to WiFi while eating or drinking
27% say they visit restaurants offering this convenience more frequently

Judging by these figures, it would seem that an enterprising restaurant owner would be well-served by adding free WiFi to their off-menu amenities. However, there are plenty of reasons to discontinue or limit free WiFi access at your business as well. Adding public WiFi to your cable bill can be expensive, and the hassle associated with needing to have a person on hand to deal with outages and help customers connect can be frustrating.  
But the biggest concern business owners have are the squatters who take up tables and work for hours without placing extra orders to account for the table turnover they’ve prevented. Dine-in restaurants and their quick-serve counterparts have two choices: either cut off service entirely or limit access during certain hours.

Luigi Di Ruocco, owner of San Francisco’s Coffee Bar, took a middle-ground approach. Throughout the lunch hour, about a third of the cafe’s tables are designated as express seating with visits limited to 30 minutes and laptops prohibited altogether, resulting in a 15-20% increase in sales. In a San Francisco Chronicle article, Di Ruocco says:
"One of the unforeseen problems was that people stayed a really long time and others who came in couldn't find seats. As a business owner, it broke my heart to turn away business. But at the same time I couldn't chase off the existing patrons because they might not come back."

Anna and Kenneth Zankel, owners of Grove restaurant, also in San Francisco, discontinued WiFi service entirely – a move that they say resulted in losing a few customers. But in the same Chronicle article, the husband and wife duo said that offering internet service had an impact on their customer experience that wasn’t worth the extra revenue:

“In short, over time a trend grew that ultimately began to dull the ambience, drive away new (and existing) guests, cause tensions, and ... well, the exact opposite of the signature experience we endeavor to provide."

If your restaurant prides itself on offering an intimate, personal customer experience, you may find that the loyalty from your regular guests who prefer the ambiance you’ve created trumps any losses you endure from eliminating free wireless access.

The Business Case for Offering Free Internet Access
On the other hand, restaurants like Starbucks, Buffalo Wild Wings, and even McDonald's are seeing a different side to this story. Offering free WiFi gives restaurants a promotional tool they can use to distinguish themselves from others, helping them to attract the customers referenced in the statistics above who proactively seek out businesses that provide this service.

A perfect example of this is Panera Bread. Nearly all of their U.S. locations offer free WiFi – a fact that they highlight in marketing materials and on their website. They even have a restaurant locator on the wireless access section of their website to help drive digitally-demanding customers to their locations. Panera Bread is one of many such restaurants: Chains such as Applebee's, Arby's, Bob Evans, and Barnes and Noble coffee shops are joining the many businesses that offer and advertise free wireless internet.

But before you make a final decision on whether or not to offer free internet access at your restaurant, there’s one final consideration to take into account.  

Today’s increasingly high-tech and connected generation loves being able to instantly check in to new locations, post pictures of their food, and leave their feedback on review sites in the moment. And while data plans associated with digital devices allow some consumers to undertake these activities without connecting to a wireless network, plan bandwidth limitations and overage charges make customers more likely to promote your restaurant for you if they can do so over a free WiFi connection.

Ultimately, as a business owner you want to offer your guests the customer experience that keeps them coming back again and again, making your business the most money in the process. There’s no doubt that the decision to offer free WiFi affects this experience in both positive and negative ways. As a result, it’s up to you to take the atmosphere you’re trying to create into account when determining whether offering free WiFi contributes to or takes away from your ideal guest experience.

Image: Flickr

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