MRM EXCLUSIVE: Five CX Strategies Restaurants Can Use to Gain a Competitive Edge During Challenging Times

There’s no disputing that the past year has been extremely hard on the restaurant industry overall. According to Upserve’s 2020 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, the industry will collectively lose $240 billion, with casual dining sales volume down by 60 percent and fast casual down 50 percent. Even before a pandemic spread across the globe in early 2020, customer experience (CX) was always key to the success of restaurant brands. And during the current climate, it has become more important than ever. As app-based delivery, drive-through and take-out services surpass indoor dining, not only does providing an excellent customer experience show customers you appreciate their business, but it also enables you to set the stage for customer loyalty that will continue to grow well beyond the pandemic.

A recent Deloitte report says 60 percent of guests indicate that a positive experience will cause them to dine at a restaurant more frequently. Even if that dining takes place outdoors, in a drive-through, or via a delivery service, it’s clear that creating the kind of experience that entices customers to return again and again is important. The question is, how can restaurants accomplish this on a consistent basis, especially with so many delivery channels in play? 

Above-average CX doesn’t just happen, and it definitely doesn’t happen overnight. While some establishments make it look easy, the reality is that consistent processes must be put into place to build the ideal dining experience. When establishments put the customer first, every business decision revolves around that priority.

As brands look to 2021, here are five operational best practices restaurants can use to boost CX and gain a competitive edge during today’s complex market:

1. Meeting or Exceeding Customers’ Needs

When customer experience is firing on all cylinders, customer needs are being met, if not exceeded. They are enjoying all aspects of their dining experience — the food, the interaction with employees, the ordering and payment process, the cleanliness and safety of the environment. This drives repeat business, referrals, and ultimately, business success. Bain & Company data backs this up — “companies with superior CX grow revenue five times faster on average than their competitors with inferior customer experience.” There is simply no downside to being customer-obsessed.

2. Digital Transformation-Fueled Operational Execution

Digitizing restaurant operations allows for the creation and execution of repeatable operational routines and the ability to pivot quickly when needed. With real-time information gathering, analysis, and insights, fast casual chains gain the agility to tailor operational and safety programs to address these challenges at scale. There are also other benefits to digitization: managers and operations teams are able to eliminate manual tasks, which in turn reduces administrative burden. Intelligent automation and embedded policies, procedures, training content, media, and recommended actions are integrated into everyday workflows. Veteran and new employees alike have the information and tools needed to do their jobs and continually adapt and improve. 

3. Protecting Brand Reputation

 From evolving public health mandates and regulatory requirements to new challenges for changing delivery models (drive-through, delivery, takeout, outdoor dining), restaurants had to adapt — and adapt fast — in 2020. At a time when consumer and employee health became the most important priority, new guidelines for the industry emerged, and restaurants had to pivot quickly. In this new normal, nothing became more important to CX — and to business sustainability — than safety, cleanliness, hygiene, and sanitation practices. And these factors matter from a compliance and risk mitigation perspective, too. 

To best adhere to changing guidelines and regulations and ensure employee and consumer safety, many restaurant brands turned to technology. They are using it to digitize, operationalize, monitor, and manage COVID-19-specific operating procedures, along with daily employee health and wellness checks, health and sanitation shift logs, incident reporting and closed-loop corrective actions. They are also using it to set up alerts, alarms and notifications to schedule and track these activities, while rolling out new platforms and training programs and outfitting their employees with new mobile or hand-held devices — all to keep their teams on the same safe page. The shift to these digital tools is here to stay, with these new procedures set to be permanent changes to operational standards.

At the same time, restaurants have still had to contend with strict guidelines and best practices for food quality and safety such as contamination control, temperature control, storage, packaging, recalls, and much more — not to mention managing the sourcing and delivery of their food, from the supply chain all the way to the consumer. This got tricky as supply chain irregularities and obstacles emerged, and as many restaurants grappled with moving from being closed, to being open, and then back again to being closed, depending on changing state mandates. Many also had to align more closely with third-party delivery partners, such as GrubHub, Door Dash or Uber Eats, to ensure CX and food safety, as each of these companies has their own policies.

4. Keeping Employees Happy and Engaged in their Work

 Excellent CX starts with employees and goes well beyond their safety and health. Even during difficult times, restaurants had to find a way to keep their teams confident and positive in their roles. Employee attitudes can make or break a retail establishment. They reflect positively on the brand and tell customers that the restaurant is a quality establishment. By providing a framework for employees to excel at their jobs and move the needle with regard to customer satisfaction, restaurants can empower their teams to succeed and thrive, which will, in turn, impact CX and, ultimately, the bottom line.

5. Continuously Seeking Avenues for Optimization and Improvement

The only way to gauge the success of operational execution is to continually measure and analyze results. When restaurant establishments utilize digital tools to manage operations they can use data visualization, KPIs and reports to monitor program status and provide actionable insights to improve performance. Management can measure performance against defined goals to determine whether programs are successful or not worth the return on investment. Without this knowledge, restaurants, especially large fast casual chains, don’t have a clear understanding of where to make adjustments and how to manage for success.

With all the challenges created by the pandemic, now is the time for retail food establishments to remember that they are dealing with people — people who are going through a lot. This includes employees. Following through on brand promises, including delivering a stellar customer experience – even as restaurants shift to alternatives to dine in — is more critical than ever.