Dealing With Employee Burnout & Difficult Customers? Try a Little Tenderness.

It seems the restaurant industry just can’t catch a break.

If you’ve been out and about this summer, you may have seen signs popping up in storefronts and restaurants saying something along the lines of, “The world is short staffed. Please be kind to those who showed up.”

Well, there’s a reason for it.

Still reeling from the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, most restaurant operators are trying to recoup financial losses from lockdowns, overcome food shortages and backed up supply chains, and triumph in the face of a very real labor shortage. To top it off, now we are seeing increasing reports of customers behaving quite badly.

It’s a lot to take on, particularly for front-line staff.

Anyone who’s ever worked in the hospitality industry knows difficult customers are nothing new, but in a post-pandemic world, the intensity of these encounters can feel overwhelming and undeserved.

In a recent article by SFGate called “SF Bay Area Restaurants Are Still Struggling. Returning Customers Don’t See That,” Madeline Wells details some of the unpleasant incidents experienced by restaurant staff throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. The article includes anecdotes of customers yelling and being openly rude or leaving unwarranted negative online reviews and filing fraudulent claims with their banks as retribution. One bakery owner put it in simple terms by saying there’s been “a huge rise in people just forgetting to be human.”

Food shortage, labor shortage, and now a shortage of kindness.

So, how can you help your team avoid burnout from unpleasant customer encounters? Part of the solution is acceptance; the same challenges that existed yesterday will still be here tomorrow. Your customers’ behavior is not likely to change right away, so accepting that these types of encounters may still occur is the key.

Next, create a culture of compassion.

Show your team that you care about them and, at the same time, find meaningful ways to encourage them to pay it forward. If your team can extend compassion and patience to a demanding customer, a positive shift can happen all around.

Keep in mind, your employees and your customers have gone through a lot since the pandemic started. We know that COVID-19 has increased the demand for mental health support and services, and many have struggled in ways that we will never know – isolation from family, loss of employment, sick loved ones, and a very real fear of a future that is still unknown.

Most importantly, remind your team that they are not the actual target of the anger or frustration. Encourage them to do their best in handling the situation, and also empower them to recognize when the issue should be escalated to a manager.

We can’t be expected to know the motivations behind a customer’s angry outburst, but we can rely on compassion, patience, and kindness in handling the encounter.

Remember, a little tenderness can go a long way.

Labor Pains in Hospitality: Workers Won’t Return to the Industry, Ever.

As restrictions surrounding the pandemic ease across the country, many Americans are ramping up to return to “normal” life. This means dining out, going to meet friends for drinks, summer leisure travel. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for, so what could go wrong?

Quite a bit, actually.

Imagine walking into your favorite restaurant on a Friday night after months of waiting to go back and order your favorite meal. You (and countless others) are brimming with excitement at the chance to go back to life pre-pandemic. But you notice service is slow, employees are frantically running around managing tables, and the food doesn’t taste quite like you remembered.

What gives?

According to a recent Bloomberg News article, a staggering 50% of U.S. hospitality workers said they wouldn’t return to their old jobs, even if they received more pay. Of the restaurant, bar, and hotel workers surveyed, a third aren’t considering reentering the industry. Ever.

While turnover has always presented a challenge in the hospitality industry, it feels different in 2021. Before the pandemic, the turnover rate in the hospitality industry hovered at 78.9% in 2019. In 2020, that number surged to 130.7% – with troublesome implications for the future, to say the least.

But the country is reopening. Isn’t this a good sign for the industry?

A survey conducted by the Labor Department reveals that job openings in the hospitality industry hit a record number in May, meaning employers are still struggling to fill spots. To be fair, it is a considerable challenge to transition gracefully from a 5-year low in unemployment and increasing minimum wages to a historic loss of 7.7 million jobs lost in a matter of months.

Moving forward, companies must tackle these challenges head on. In March 2021, only 28.4% of restaurant operators were employing 80-100% of their pre-COVID employees. That means over 70% of restaurants are forced to do more with less.

If companies can’t find a way to improve employment rates, there may be a challenge in meeting the surging demand of customers, which will hinder the overall recovery in the industry.

If the Bloomberg News article is right, then employees are looking for higher pay, a less physically demanding workplace, and better benefits. Maybe this isn’t achievable at your company, at least not right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t position yourselves to attract more employees.

One thing is for certain: in a post-COVID world, you can’t afford to lose more employees if you want to keep your customers happy.

It’s safe to say that a full recovery in the hospitality industry will take years and will require developing a robust strategy to attract and keep top talent.

What will your strategy be?

Leveraging Your Mystery Shopping Data

Finding gaps in your processes can be an opportunity to engage with staff and improve customer experience.

A Measure of Excellence

MSI has sent evaluators into hundreds of businesses and institutions that range from hotels, restaurants and retail stores, to hospitals and health care centers. Our question sets, and the data our evaluators return, have informed management and C-level leadership since 1954, helping them shape the strategies that guide consistent service and ambiance.

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