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  • Giles Gordon-Smith

Service resumes - are you ready? Beware the pitfalls of process.

What we’re all going through is unprecedented, everyone agrees. Hospitality folks have had every right to be gloomy over the past months, and while many customer bums have returned, for now, to sanitised seats, uncertainty lingers in our pubs, restaurants, event spaces, hotels, office receptions and beyond.

To regularly find optimism therefore, has been the source of reassurance. I’ve heard talk of potential for change, for a more human service, borne out a new collective sense of compassion; we are all in this together, after all. Gone will be the robotic, inauthentic, care-less service encounters (for those unfamiliar with us, a few of Penshee’s service peeves), here is the dawn of a deeply empathetic, understanding, care driven, thoughtful and ‘present’ service experience (essentially our top 5!). The service phoenix will rise from the ashes! Right?

Well that depends - on how employees are being trained to handle their inevitably eager, thirsty and hungry, yet perhaps cautious customers. Whatever the nature of your business, the systems will have changed. There are new routes, procedures, signs, screens, forms, menus, sanitation measures and cleaning protocols in place; all of which need to be made obvious (or some, obligatory) to every customer.

This is a whole new process.

But here’s the thing about process: If you train purely on process, your customers will feel processed. We’ve seen it in the ‘finest’ hotels; processes designed to create a more personalised experience, yet doing the polar opposite - the same experience for every Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Please don’t get me wrong here, good systems are always vital, and now more-so than ever. Yet also more than ever before, we need the empathy and care to support them. As employees and customers alike get used to the systems, this should be the number one priority for operators.

Some context now. Here’s a few things I’ve heard in the 45 minutes that I’ve been sitting in this restaurant:

“Can we go out this way? (numerous times)”. “What’s the point in track and trace if we don’t all have to do it?”. “It says we order at the bar, but the guy told me to ask you.”

Now I’d say the signage and systems here are very good, and the hostess did explain things clearly on arrival. However, most customers are too distracted to listen to briefings and have about a 0.5 second tolerance for reading ‘useful’ information. So one thing becomes inevitable: Customers will ask questions. In doing so, they will present you with an opportunity. The opportunity to provide a specific emotion, namely reassurance. The necessity for reassurance could be driven by myriad reasons. A need to feel reassured that they were right to venture out rather than stay in the comfort of their own home, reassurance that their custom is valued, that they are safe, that somebody understands their uncertainty and that they are not making a fool of themselves by using the wrong exit.

So how do you create reassurance, particularly in a time where we find new barriers to human connection? The introduction of facemasks, screens and distancing measures and the avoidance of any sort of physical gesture such as a handshake, coat assistance, a deftly and delicately placed hand on shoulder, has made the job harder. Importantly though, reassurance is an emotion, and one that is far better created by people, not laminated signage. With the nurturing of any positive culture, the ultimate customer experience is a result of the right internal service. Reassurance flows from boss, to manager, to supervisor, to waitress - to customer. Specifically, reassurance breeds in the presence of active listening (hint: the sort we all need to do, not what we all think we do), so make that a key component of training sessions. Listening well creates opportunities to demonstrate empathy and reinforce the important notion that we are indeed, all in this together.

So yes, have your systems in place and make sure your employees understand them. But far more importantly, ensure that your processes are there for the right reasons - to keep your employees and guests safe, and not something to hide behind and an excuse to provide a lesser service. What do your returning customers really need (notice the important choice of the word ‘need’ over ‘want’)? Reassurance will be up there, so make this your focus.


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