Customer service in times of crisis

 

By: Diana Bello Aristizábal

Para leer en Español

 

South Florida is known for its wide range of products and services under the B2C model, that is, from business to consumer. However, it is not perceived by most as a destination with good customer service, which has become more visible in the last two years after the arrival of the coronavirus.

 

It was from March 2020 when restaurants, hotels, cruise lines, airlines, banks, supermarket chains and all businesses that serve customers directly began to experience an internal change that negatively impacted consumer perception.

 

Since then, it is common to wait long times for a table in a restaurant, to stay in hotels where room housekeeping, while the traveler is staying, is minimum or non-existent, to see shelves in the supermarket with a limited supply of specific products, to endure bad service in phone lines or unanswered emails.

 

But of all the industries, perhaps the one that has been most affected by the pandemic is hospitality and tourism. This includes restaurants and bars, hotels, travel agencies, cruise lines, airlines and all corporations working in the travel business, which are struggling to maintain their reputation, create profits, sustain themselves, and thrive in the midst of a crisis.

 

Given this scenario, it is inevitable to ask ourselves whether customer service in this industry, as well as the sector itself, is in crisis or not, and if there are good prospects for the future.

 

Few employees for a lot of clients

For Rolando Aedo, Chief Operating Officer for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), customer service in Miami has never been a strength. “We are a great destination worldwide but the service has always been something to improve.”

 

“I’m already used to not being treated as good here compared with other places,” says Lina Polanía, a Miami resident who visits restaurants about three times a week.

 

But what do people perceive as “bad” customer service? In reality, it goes far beyond being treated in a friendly way or not, as Miamians generally complain about wait times, orders with errors and a lack of workers.

 

“I frequently order food by delivery and although waiting times have improved, the orders could arrive faster,” says Lina, adding that waiting times are also felt when visiting restaurants that often are overwhelmed with work or take more than an hour to sit a client in a table.

 

Servicio al cliente en tiempos de crisisFor Marcela Alarcón, who eats at restaurants in the Downtown area, waiting times were tedious last year but very short today, especially after being seated in a table.

 

“They want to get you out as quickly as possible because there are people waiting. I used to spend an average of two hours in a high-end restaurant between main course, dessert and coffee and now I’m out in an hour, which annoys me because my purpose of going out to eat is to share with my loved ones and the service speed no longer allows that,” she says.

 

Another issue that represents a problem and that is actually the root of the current scenario is the shortage of staff, since it is common to see restaurants with 2 or 3 waiters serving a wide radius of tables.

 

“In high end restaurants, you are usually served by the host, the one who pours water, the waiter who takes your order, the person who recommends the wine, and the helpers. Now, there are places where someone who takes the order also serves the water,” adds Marcela.

 

For Rolando Aedo, the shortage of staff has improved a lot compared to the summer of 2021. “This is still a problem but not at last year’s level when I heard of hotels that had to close their reservation line because they didn’t have enough employees for the volume of clients.”

 

But where is the workforce? Judging by figures, far from the hospitality and tourism industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in November 2021, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs, of which 1 million were of leisure and hospitality.

 

“This industry emotionally drains its employees who must work extended hours on weekends, holidays or at night shifts when everyone is on a break,” explains Dr. Lisa Cain, Associate Professor at the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at FIU.

 

The problem lies in the fact that employees must continue to meet customer demands in an environment that is no longer the same as before. “Most of us had service expectations before the pandemic based on restaurants operating with a full staff, but this is no longer the case and now a single waiter serves many more tables,” says Dr. Cain.

 

They do so while getting paid the same amount of money. “The average wage for workers in hospitality is a little over $36,000 a year, that is, $3,000 a month before taxes.”

 

In this regard, Rolando Aedo has a different opinion. For him, wages in restaurants and hotels have risen significantly because companies now are making an effort to recover the workforce. “Federal aid made a huge impact on us. Some people claimed it was more profitable to live off unemployment than returning to work.”

 

Despite this, the industry is not in decline. According to numbers compiled by GMCVB, as of January 5, 2022, the volume of reservations on the Open Table app was of 112%. “Restaurants are taking more reservations and hotels more rooms, although in the last two weeks we have lost 15% of the market due to the Omicron variant, which will improve starting this month,” Rolando says.

 

Happy Employees = Satisfied Customers

It’s a fact that crises bring opportunities for improvement. For this reason, although the pandemic has brought challenges that the industry is still dealing with today, in the long term a much needed transformation is expected in the industry.

 

“This is the perfect time to rethink customer service. We are not in a crisis but in a moment of flux and we must find creative solutions to adapt to what we’re dealing with,” says Dr. Cain.

 

This translates into making changes in labor conditions and in operations so that these are more in tune with the new circumstances. “We need to improve the offering because it’s the only way to compete. The challenge now is to meet the needs of the employees so that they provide a great service,” says Andrei Stern, CFO of the Suviche/Novecento restaurant group.

 

In his opinion, the fact that the hospitality industry is competing with others for the workforce is concerning, since the competition used to be between restaurants but now it’s with large companies such as Amazon or Uber that provide something the industry is clearly not offering.

 

“Most people see hospitality jobs as temporary and not to build a career. We need to change that mindset and think about how to get people inspired to make a career here, which is what makes corporations like Amazon attractive,” says Andrei.

 

But, in addition, it is imperative to communicate the benefits of working in the sector, offering more flexible hours, better salaries, and training opportunities, taking into consideration many times when employees are not properly trained, customer service fails.

 

“Recovering the workforce is going to take time and there will probably be an assessment to look how employees are being compensated. I think there will be much more emphasis on support from the managerial levels, since people don’t quit organizations but their bosses and colleagues, you leave when you don’t like with and who you work for. That’s why we need managers who are good leaders,” says Dr. Cain.

 

But while all that becomes a reality, the business model can be changed a bit so that the lack of staff and the shortage in the supply chain, which is another surrounding problem, creates less of an impact.

 

To achieve this, technology and creativity are the best allies, from robots that serve tables and simplified menus that use fewer ingredients to the possibility that the customer places the order in the restaurant from an electronic device.

 

There will also be a trend toward cooperative style models between restaurants through shared kitchens and shared labor pools. Under these models, businesses can exchange employees to fill labor needs when required.

 

“We are experiencing a cycle that will not end this year but the next when the efforts we are making to reinvent ourselves are reflected and there is a reorganization of the workforce. Then we will see where we are,” concludes Andrei Stern.

 

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