How focusing on the human experience can help strengthen brands.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant industry has responded to the immediate needs for operational changes with remarkable speed and precision. However, mired in the difficult challenge of keeping up with the constant shifts and adjustments to new data, guidance, local regulations, and legal obligations, it can be easy to lose sight of the key tenet of the foodservice industry: serving people first.

While many companies have justifiably focused on the bottom line and daily struggle to keep the doors open during a pandemic, forgetting to create genuine connections with customers and employees not only makes it difficult to provide excellent service, but it also means those same restaurants are missing out on a valuable opportunity to build lifelong fans.

“If your current approach to customer experience is all about the ‘what’ and the ‘right now,’ you’re missing the big picture and a huge opportunity to differentiate from the competition,” says Sumter Cox, vice president of digital and marketing solutions at Mood Media. “Now is the time to focus on the ‘why,’ and that means it’s time to be human and get real.”

Here are a few easy ways restaurant leaders can use empathy to put people first and make their businesses stronger by doing so.

1. Be Real With Customers

In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed that nearly every brand had issued a statement that included some variant of “We’re all in this together.” While these messages were well-intentioned and designed to demonstrate solidarity with patrons, many of these messages fell flat and did nothing to differentiate brands. But why did they fail?

Jonathan Luther, co-founder and proprietor of JJ’s Red Hots, a North Carolina-based quick-service hot dog chain says it was because these messages lacked any kind of concrete information. “There were no specifics about how companies would ‘be there’ for us,” he says. “The writing was almost comical because it was so filled with buzzwords rather than facts.”

Rather than issue generic messages that fail to stand out in a crowded conversation, Luther suggests being open and honest with customers about the challenges a brand is facing. He did this by speaking about the challenges facing JJ’s and the logic behind difficult decisions he had to make in a series of videos that were posted on social media. Not only did this approach inform customers about how the brand would be open and honest, but it also gave them insight into the very human decision-making process, demonstrating solidarity without cliches and opening lines of communication.

2. Listen

Even now, the COVID-19 situation is rapidly developing, and while restaurants contend with health and safety guidelines, it’s important that they don’t get so caught up in managing the situation that they forget to listen to their customers, too.

For example, Luther sent guests of JJ’s Red Hots a 10-question survey to figure out which safety precautions made his customers most comfortable. He then used that information to inform the brand’s policies. By asking guests for their opinions, restaurants can show them that they are taking precautions seriously and that they value their customers’ input.

3. Communicate with Employees

It’s also crucial that restaurants don’t forget about their employees. Not only are crew members employees who represent the brand, they’re also humans facing the same types of anxiety and exhaustion as your guests. If they’re treated with empathy, they can then extend that empathy to customers to create a memorable dining experience. Exceptional customer service begins with exceptional leadership.

Cox suggests that restaurants hold regular team meetings in which leaders and employees are able to be vulnerable and discuss doubts, fears, and concerns, as well as to offer encouragement and support.

Luther, for instance, made communicating with his team honestly a top priority by communicating changes to team members and ensuring each employee understood their legal rights. And, after an initial furlough and the closure of two out of three JJ’s locations, Luther gave employees a choice in whether they felt safe coming back to work or not based on each individuals’ health and family situations.

“I felt like it was a priority to make sure people who wanted to work had a safe place to do so,” he says. “But I also wanted to make sure we listened to their concerns and that everyone felt safe.”

[float_image image=”” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”” alt=”Starbucks Impossible Breakfast Sandwich” align=”left” /]

4. Create a Calming, Effective Atmosphere

Simply leaving the house during this pandemic is stressful for many, so it’s more important than ever to anticipate the needs of diners and crew members and provide a soothing atmosphere.

With his restaurants located in North Carolina, Luther knew the summer heat was a challenge in reopening for outdoor dining. At one of his locations he addressed the heat factor by installing a shade on the rooftop deck. He also rented a tent to keep guests sitting in the parking lot out of the sun. And because employees were also spending more time outdoors, he provided them with cooling vests to keep them comfortable too.

“Think through the customer journey to understand where you can offer messages of safety and assurance and where you can offer moments of joy, discovery, and relaxation,” Cox says. “For example, consider how digital signage can be used to reassure diners that they’re in a healthy, clean environment. And it’s amazing how much something as seemingly simple as music can lift diners’ and employees’ spirits.”

No matter what challenges restaurants are facing, one thing is certain: Focusing on the human experience can help brands stand out from the competition and forge genuine connections with customers.

Cox says, “Taking a step away from the distractions and getting back to what makes your brand great can help your restaurant become the first destination customers want to go to when they are looking for options to get out of the house.”

To learn more about how restaurants can create a better customer experience during the pandemic, visit the Mood Media website.

By Peggy Carouthers

Sponsored Content