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How your brand image hinges on customer experience

Restaurants need to examine their current customer experience given today’s environment to determine how to meet consumer expectations while continuing to deliver on their brand promise. Lisa Van Kesteren, the founder and CEO of SeeLevel HX, take a look at four tips for executing on your customer experience proposition.

How your brand image hinges on customer experienceiStock Photo

| by Lisa van Kesteren — CEO, SeeLevelHX

Restaurant operators are navigating a variety of pressures as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic linger on, making it more challenging than ever to provide an exceptional customer experience.

From supply chain shortfalls and cost inflation to the tight labor market, the current operating environment is as difficult as any the foodservice industry has ever encountered. The labor shortage in particular makes it difficult for restaurant operators to provide the level of service that their customers would have expected before the pandemic.

Although workers have been returning to the industry in large numbers this year, qualified staff can still be hard to find and retain. According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry added more than 1 million jobs through the first seven months of 2021, but was still about 8% short of the 12.3 million workers that were employed before the pandemic. Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., report lower levels of restaurant employment than they had in 2019.

Amid these operational challenges, it's more important than ever for restaurant operators to ensure the customer experience remains the linchpin of their service or else they risk suffering long-term damage to their brand image. Restaurants need to examine their current customer experience given today's environment to determine how to meet consumer expectations while continuing to deliver on their brand promise. Brands should also not only look at where they may be falling short but also how they can execute a strategy to achieve their goals for delivering on their brand promise.

Following are four tips for executing on your customer experience proposition:

Focus on the "must-have" fundamentals

Faced with serious staffing and supply chain challenges, operators should concentrate on executing against the key elements of their brand promise, putting these "must-have" fundamentals, such as restaurant cleanliness, strong food safety practices, friendly staff, and consistent levels of food quality, at the top of the list. Some of the "nice to have" flourishes that operators may have offered in the past might need to be temporarily suspended to ensure that workers are delivering the "must-have" elements of the customer experience.

To ensure brands are delivering on the brand promise through each of the channels in which they operate, restaurants may need to consider limiting some of those "nice to have" services offered. If, for example, a restaurant lacks the staff to provide a strong guest experience in the dining room, they should consider curtailing some or all of their dine-in service.

Some restaurant locations, for example, have continued operating as drive-thru or takeout only, even though restrictions on indoor dining have been lifted, simply because they lack adequate staffing. Others have opened only parts of their dining rooms to ensure they can provide strong service levels to a limited number of customers at any one time, or reduced their hours of operation in order to operate with a reduced staff.

And while online ordering and third-party delivery have helped keep restaurants afloat during the pandemic, operators need to ensure that customers are experiencing their brand the right way. If not, it may be better to forego this channel of service rather than risk long-term damage to the brand.

Communicate and engage with customers

Operators can help manage customer expectations and experiences with careful communications using digital and physical signage as well as verbal communications.

Customers might not realize the pressures that restaurants are under in terms of staffing and supply chain shortfalls and ingredient pricing pressures. Operators should have a strategy for explaining how these might impact the customer experience, but keep it positive if possible.

For example, rather than simply asking for customers' patience if the restaurant is operating short-handed, consider posting signage that asks customers to show their appreciation for the workers who are there.

Similarly, let customers know that price increases are unavoidable because of the rising cost of goods that are out of the restaurant's control.

Operators also need a communication strategy around menu item availability. Staff should be able to explain why certain items might not be available and be ready to suggest alternate choices, and items that are not available should be clearly indicated on both digital and physical menus.

Empathize with workers

Restaurant workers may be feeling significant stress from the pandemic, both on the job and at home, and operators should not underestimate the need to empathize with their staff.

Employees may be stretched thin and are likely dealing with unfamiliar responsibilities and procedures at work, for example, while at the same time they may be coping with stresses outside of work, such as caring for other family members.

It's important for restaurant operators and managers in this situation to check in with their workers every day to understand how they are feeling, both physically and mentally, so that they can do their part in delivering on your brand promise. Operators need to be mindful of how much they are asking their employees to work when restaurants are operating short-staffed.

Look for automated solutions

The pandemic accelerated the restaurant industry's adoption of automation for some processes, but operators should carefully consider the impact that technology could have on the customer experience.

Some customers are comfortable with a high level of automation, including ordering kiosks and mobile apps, while others will prefer the option of in-person interaction with staff. Customers often go to restaurants specifically for social activity, even if it's just a brief conversation with a server or cashier.

Restaurants that offer digital ordering platforms also need to ensure that these channels operate seamlessly and deliver the experience customers expect.

Behind-the-scenes technologies can often help achieve efficiencies without detracting from a restaurant's brand promise. Operators should look closely at automated solutions that can streamline some back-of-house functions without detracting from customer service.

In summary, restaurant operators might have to compromise in some areas of their operations in order to excel at delivering their brand promise, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Failure to provide a satisfying guest experience could result in long-term damage to a restaurant's brand reputation.

Operators should remember that communication with customers is key, and should remain positive, focusing on the elements that are under the operator's control. They also need to empathize with and support workers while at the same time look for technologies that ultimately allow them to focus on delivering the brand promise to every customer.

Above all, brands must strive to remember that the brand promise should remain the same regardless of the current environment restaurant brands are facing and that means providing the best possible customer experience.

Lisa van Kesteren

Lisa van Kesteren is the founder and CEO of SeeLevel HX, a leading mystery shopping market research agency. The company is best known for its hallmark mystery shopping programs, including for seven of the top 10 national QSR brands.

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