Managing guest relations can be tricky, even at the best of times. But now, as hospitality venues around the world look towards reopening with specific health and safety recommendations and requirements in mind, the guest experience will likely be a little different than it was 6 months ago. And, well, change can be challenging to accept. The key is carefully managing expectations.
Today, Typsy has the run down on four tricky (but common) post-COVID service scenarios and the best way to handle them to ensure your guests still leave smiling.
Although the hospitality industry is beginning to rebound and businesses are looking at reopening, there's no denying that the way we all think about hospitality operations, and customer service, has changed - perhaps forever.
But for many of us, change is hard. And hospitality, unfortunately, is often an industry where customers return to a venue specifically because they know what to expect. Regular patrons often order the same menu items, and look out for their 'favorite' staff members. As a barista, I once had a customer wait six months to ask me my name(!), specifically because they didn't want to get "too attached" if I would be leaving.
Unexpected change is likely to cause a few growing pains. Many businesses may find themselves temporarily understaffed but overwhelmed with returning customers once stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. This combination can be a perfect storm of being extremely busy and trying to placate surprised or dissatisfied guests at the same time. A very difficult situation to manage.
There’s a delicate line between service appearing seamless (which impresses diners and optimizes your workflow) and appearing hurried (which can easily offend diners).
Being able to deliver a nuanced and attentive service comes with experience, but there are definitely specific tips and tricks you can use straight away to see an immediate improvement in your service skills, guest experience, and – hopefully – guest feedback.
With that in mind, we're looking at four tricky (but common) scenarios servers are likely to face, with top tips for avoiding or navigating them successfully.
- How to handle guests who are ignoring social distancing restrictions
- How to ask guests to vacate a table
- How to handle an extended wait for tables
- How to explain downsized or changed menu items
Scenario 1: Guests ignore social distancing/capacity restrictions
This is likely to be a recurring problem across dine-in venues as the public begins to feel more confident venturing out with friends and family for social occasions. And it's easy to understand how patrons could become a little carried away, especially if everything else seems business-as-usual.
But making sure patrons observe capacity and social distancing restrictions is vital - not just for their own safety, but the safety of your team and for the security of your business going forward. Across the world, people have been very quick to post photos of others ignoring social distancing - and especially while your business is in a reopen/rebound/recover phase, that kind of social media coverage is just not going to do you any favors.
It will be crucial to train your staff in identifying and dealing with social distancing violations. Catching unwanted behavior and correcting it straight away will result in the least disruption to your service - that means being clear about rules with patrons as soon as they're greeted and seated.
Be specific. Ask that guests not rearrange tables (at least, not without assistance from staff); clearly explain which tables or seats are available and which aren't.
Post signage. Putting up posters explaining social distancing, capacity restrictions and any other measures your venue is taking to make it COVID-safe sets expectations for guests as soon as they approach the door.
Scenario 2: You have patrons waiting for a seat, but lead-footed guests are holding up your table turnover
If you're following social-distancing requirements, you may have had to reduce your venue's capacity. That means table turnover has to be as optimized and streamlined as possible. But if you have a table of guests who have settled in for a long meal, knowing how to ask them to vacate (without offending anyone!) can be very tricky.
Directly asking a table to vacate should be a last resort. There are a number of steps you can take to ensure service is streamlined without making patrons feel uncomfortable or hurried.
This is definitely a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: figure out a reasonable time limit for patrons, and be up-front about it. The time limit you set will very much depend on your venue, your menu, and your staff - a table turnaround of 45 minutes might be appropriate for a small cake and coffee shop, but unrealistic and unfair to both patrons and staff in a fine-dining restaurant.
Stay on top of a table’s progress with your ideal time limit in mind, and make the courses quick and seamless – in a café with table service, you might follow a course progress like this:
- Seat tables and immediately offer drinks.
- Ask if guests are ready to order meals as drinks are brought to the table, or within a few minutes of seating (whichever comes first).
- Dishes should be cleared shortly after finishing – bearing in mind that pulling a plate away the second a diner has set their cutlery down can be off-putting.
- Dessert or second-round drinks should be offered while clearing, or immediately afterwards.
- After guests have finished their final course, check in again for further orders.
- If guests are completely finished, provide the bill with plenty of time to spare.
If these steps have been followed and guests are still seated, it’s okay to (politely!) approach and be honest that another party requires the table. Be apologetic but firm, and, if possible, be ready with alternative seating suggestions (i.e. a seat at the bar, a secondary dining room, or an alfresco area).
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Scenario 3: You're at social-distancing capacity, and the wait is getting long
With capacity restrictions, particularly for venues where seating is permanent and therefore has to be taped-off rather than removed altogether, patrons may be confused as to why they're forced to wait for tables when your venue appears half-full. This may cause a guest experience to lean negative, especially if the wait for tables is longer than anticipated.
The best solution to help avoid this issue is simple: encouraging guests to book ahead of time. Having a plan, knowing your venue's capacity, and allowing guests to book a time slot for a table will give your staff confidence to turn over tables when the time comes.
Of course, in hospitality venues, walk-ins will be inevitable. Retaining walk-in patrons is possible, even if there's a long wait.
Again, clear signage can help you manage guest expectations before they become impatient. Try posting graphic illustrations of social distancing, or even a 'map' of your new venue layout if available seating has changed because of capacity restrictions.
Get creative with waiting areas. If your venue has the space, designate a wide waiting area to ensure patrons waiting for tables are comfortable, attended to, and appropriately distanced from each other.
It will also be crucial to ensure guests are kept in the loop - guests tend to become impatient and difficult to manage to when they feel ignored or uncertain. Be open and realistic with guests about wait times - impatient guests can often be drawn back in with a firm seating time and a drink to keep them occupied in the meantime.
Scenario 4: Your menu's changed, and a guest misses an old favorite
As we've discussed before, the COVID period might have necessitated a change in your menu as well as within your venue and staff. This might be because your kitchen team has downsized, or because certain dishes weren't suited to take-out options, or because you've experienced disruptions in your supply chain.
Whatever the reason, you might find that some regulars resist the menu change. It's almost inevitable that removing a menu item - even something that may have gone unordered for months - will result in a guest asking about it. As we know, people are creatures of habit, and downsizing or changing your menu might result in disappointed guests.
Make sure servers are trained and well-prepared with suggestions for replacement dishes. This means thinking carefully about reasons why a guest might insist on a defunct dish - is it a dietary requirement? An ingredient they particularly like?
Servers should be ready with appropriate questions and personalized suggestions that make sense for the guest - if guest enquires about a meat-free salad that used to be on menu, ask if they would like to hear about an alternative vegetarian dish.
If a guest becomes truly unhappy, you can also consider offering complimentary menu items. Ensure everyone on the team understands your venue’s process for offering complimentary items to guests. Freebies can be a very useful and effective tool for turning a negative guest experience into a positive one, but should be used carefully and with manager approval – a poorly timed offer can lead to a customer feeling bribed, rather than attended to.
If you've found it difficult to stay connected with your supplier, taking supplier product training online is a great way to overcome those in-person obstacles. With Typsy, you can get all of your supplier's specific training on the go, whenever and wherever, via the Typsy app.
Keen to get your supplier on Typsy? Check out this press release for more information.
In all these scenarios, the most important strategy is clearly communicating with both guests and staff. Team members should understand the process and hierarchy for directing customer concerns - which makes refreshing staff training absolutely vital.
Most of all, managing guest expectations is about making your own expectations clear. When patrons know what to expect, guiding their experience in your venue becomes much easier to manage.
Have a question? We’re always ready to talk.