Restaurateurs are accustomed to performing in an environment of uncertainty. Competition is fierce and guests’ needs and expectations are always evolving. The industry is constantly changing, and the most successful restaurant operators have learned to change with it. In fact, for many, that is a part of the thrill of the business. The industry is never boring. It never stands still.
But 2020 has brought a severe global pandemic—the most profound disruption many restaurants have known. In the face of so much fear and uncertainty, restaurants are seeking to serve a clientele far different than the diners they knew just a year ago.
Guests are shaken. They’re unsure about what is safe and what is not. They likely have significant questions as to whether your restaurant is willing and able to take the necessary health precautions.
Even as anxieties surrounding the virus linger, and fears of a second surge persist, guests are looking to resume some sense of normalcy. Quarantine fatigue is real, and your guests are likely experiencing it.
As ready as guests may be to get out of the house and enjoy a good meal with friends and family, though, they’re still almost certainly going to need some additional reassurance. Survey data shows, for example, that 80 percent of consumers are turning first to brands they trust as they begin to take their initial tentative steps back into “normal” life and activities.
Unfortunately, the research also indicates that, though customers require trust in their business relationships, they rarely find it. In fact, only about one-third of consumers feel that businesses are doing a good job in prioritizing people over profits.
That means you’re going to have a number of hurdles to overcome when you’re working to regain your customers’ trust in the wake of coronavirus.
One of the first and most important things to remember is that rebuilding your relationship with your customers is not going to happen all at once. It’s going to be a process. A recent study by the Coca-Cola company found that customers may need a period of “reintroduction” to your restaurant to help them gain confidence in your health and safety standards.
Plan for a period of slow growth and evolving demand in the weeks following reopening. The Coca-Cola study also indicates that half of customers will be prepared to resume takeout orders within one-to-two weeks of a restaurant reopening. However, these same customers state that they would not be comfortable with dining in for at least a month.
This means that operators are likely going to need to plan for significant evolutions in customer demand in the reopening phases. For instance, they will likely need to have the logistics in place to accommodate a disproportionate number of takeout or delivery orders when they first reopen.
Innovations, such as order trackers, can further support the rebuilding of customer trust because they are able to track their meal from the moment it is ordered to the moment it is received. If customers are picking up, trackers can allow customers to avoid long wait times in the lobby, arriving only when the order is ready. If the order is to be delivered, customers can track their orders en route, while avoiding direct contact with the driver.
Even more than the health and safety aspects of practices such as these, innovating in this way telegraphs to clients the proactive measures you are taking for their protection.
It’s not going to be enough to simply revise your operating strategies or to maintain the highest standards in health, hygiene, and safety. You also need to communicate with your customers clearly, openly, and consistently.
This means addressing both the good and the bad, the successes as well as the setbacks. Effective crisis management involves dealing with the situation head on, without evasion, deflection, diminishment or exaggeration. It also means responding to customers’ questions and concerns in a timely, respectful, comprehensive, and transparent manner.
Online communications are a particularly important tool for crisis management, public relations, and overall trust (re)building. Social media and your restaurant’s website can be powerful resources for communicating your store’s health and safety plans for guests.
For example, your restaurant may have implemented the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) best practices for the restaurant and hospitality industry in the age of COVID. Publicizing these protocols widely, including placing them front and center across all your online platforms, must be a top priority as you strive to regain your customers’ trust.
Impress the Customer
Operating a thriving restaurant is not easy in the best of circumstances, but it’s especially challenging in the wake of coronavirus. Your customers are the heart and soul of your business, and regaining their trust, as well as ensuring their safety, must be the paramount concern. Doing this will take time, energy, and effort. However, with diligence and transparency, it can be done.
Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer from the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of topics and, because she spent over six years in the restaurant business before writing full-time, takes a particular interest in covering topics related to the food and beverage industry. To learn more about Jori, you can follow her on Twitter.