Service isn’t a traffic driver, it’s an expectation

expectation, service, brand

Reading through some recent research conducted for brands has produced a resounding ‘Meh’ on the topic of service. The research, which is confidential, was deployed to identify clear drivers for an expanding brand. Though respondents rated the service above average and added many positive notes in the open ends, it is obvious that they don’t come to this brand for the service. And that they had a certain expectation from the category.

In research conducted by F&RM, service quality ranked second to ‘past experience’ for selecting a restaurant. Curiously, ‘friendly wait staff’ was sixth. We determined at that time that accuracy and efficiency are more important than friendliness. We also determined that the contrary to understanding, friendly does not equal quality.

There is so much focus on service in training. And it is absolutely important. Training staff in the finer points of service and making sure guests have a great experience is critical. Especially since past experience is the number one criteria for selecting their next restaurant.

But where does service actually fit in the experience? This is the tricky part for training in service. And also for guests in assessing service. If the server is busy and forgets to bring the check, that might be bad service. Where is the line? If the kitchen sends an incorrect order, the guest interprets that as bad service too.

Even when the service is flawless, it still doesn’t drive traffic. Guests expect a level of service. That expected level shifts with the restaurant and with the category. But they still walk into each meal with some ideas of how they will be treated. They expect a clean table (that doesn’t wobble). They expect the person they communicate with to know the menu and understand what they are ordering. They have an expectation of the time the order will take to prepare and get to their table. A guest’s positive experience in one in which everything goes off without a hitch.

An extremely positive experience, ie. memorable, is one in which the restaurant over-delivers on that expectation.

Even for the best operators it is a challenge to meet the ever rising consumer standard. People are spoiled for experiences, and brands invest ever more in improving them. But if brands hope to consistently create memorable experiences, this is what they’re up against. Expectation.

So brands are caught in a trap. Because consumers believe that anything less than the expectation they have should be met. Just to get them in the door. And a million things out of the control of an operator can ruin that expectation. Anything short, and they’re not back. Overachieve, and set the bar higher for future visits.

The key for brands is in how they manage those cases in which something goes awry. Most operations training focuses on creating the positive, managing to the average. For brands with hopes of keeping up in the experience economy that we’re now living in, the focus should shift to managing for negative. As communications teams have a plan in place for crises, so operators should have a plan for the millions of little ways a visit can go wrong.

Since most of those incidents are not unique, there’s no reason that they can’t be accounted for in training. Equip servers and counter staff with the tools to react – or even plan for – errors in operation. As we all know, most guests are annoyed with the problem, but grow more frustrated with poor handling of the initial mistake. Training for this can help meet the expectation.

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.