If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people just don’t trust each other anymore. Everything is a point of contention. The innocuous conversation often breaks down along political, scientific, or sociological fault lines. And no matter where you turn, another fight is nearby.
This lack of trust, more than anything, is what has made this virus so deadly. If everyone could agree on basic scientific conclusions about how to slow the spread of disease, more lives would have been saved and small businesses would not have borne the brunt of the economic impact.
There is no industry that has felt the impacts of this phenomenon more than the restaurant industry. Analysts estimate the restaurant industry has already lost $120 billion because of the reopening standards states imposed on independent businesses. They also expect that deficit to double before year’s end.
Against this backdrop, the National Restaurant Association launched its first television ad campaign, Sounds We Crave, to remind customers why we cherish eating out. But its true intent is to get customers to trust restaurants are safe places to bring their friends and family again.
“We know safety is top of mind for returning diners — it’s top of mind for us as well — so, the ad pairs the familiar sights and sounds with new visual safety cues, including servers wearing masks and the ServSafe Dining Commitment door decal,” Tom Bené, President & CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement.
Once they were allowed to reopen, business owners found out that simply diverting additional funds toward sanitation and employee health wasn’t enough to get customers to come back. Some customers didn’t come back for political reasons. Others didn’t trust that some business owners would implement all the necessary sanitation requirements.
Restaurants like C&C Café in Castle Rock, Colorado, who decidedly ignored state-mandated closures or service restrictions, certainly didn’t help businesses re-earn the trust of their customers. Rightly so, C&C was forced to close down by the state health department. Unfortunately, local restaurants, and others similarly situated around the country, were impacted as well.
Restrictions on dine-in service didn’t make matters better and put extra strain on establishments lacking developed delivery systems. And it seems likely that these restrictions will continue for the foreseeable future. So, business owners will need to figure out how to get their customers to trust them, independent of other businesses, in order to get them to return.
Listen, Learn, Adapt
There is no denying the essential nature of the restaurant industry. It’s an inherently service-oriented business that offers both food and socialization, two of life’s most essential elements. That’s why restaurants transcend social and cultural lines, sometimes acting as the thread holding communities together.
Through this lens, it’s easy to see why business owners often think they know their customers better than they know themselves. Some business owners spend hours per week researching the latest market trends trying to keep their business on the cutting edge.
But, the pandemic has thrown consumer habits to the ceiling fans. They fluctuate as often as the local COVID ordinances restaurants have to follow. That’s why market research is increasingly ineffective in predicting consumer behavior.
Now, more than ever, it’s best for business owners to start listening to their customers more than they speak. With customers divide amongst themselves, there is no way to predict how groups will act independently of one another. Similarly, there is no way to know what your customers will need in the future until they tell you.
Just hearing your customer’s voice isn’t enough. You have to follow it up with meaningful adaptations if they are going to trust you again. If your customers need delivery options, give it to them. It’s that simple.
Build Customer Loyalty
Getting customers back into your restaurant is an important feat, but it’s a small win in the big picture. Once customers begin to return, your focus needs to immediately shift to building customer loyalty and sustaining success for the future.
That means you need to give your customers the same experience they expect, even if it means changing the setting. The future of restaurant service will be digitized. From self-service kiosks and beer wall to tableside ordering and payment systems, customers want to rely on you for quick and timely service.
In the future, that will also mean offering drive-thru service. The pandemic has shown the importance of delivery and drive-thru options. However, businesses should also focus on providing curbside pickup and online ordering options to cater to every need of your customers.