Are you ready, KZN?

2007-12-04 00:00

The next 10 weeks are, for KwaZulu-Natal’s service industry businesses, the most critical period of the year. Get it right and it’s the yellow brick road; get it wrong and the sword of Damocles will fall. The schools have closed and now the tourists will come. They will come in their hordes bringing their money — money that is so important to KZN’s economies. Often, more than 90% of the whole year’s profit is generated in the two months of December and January.

Preparation should have been ongoing since August to ensure everything is in place and ready for this influx. However, there is still time to carry out one specific and essential undertaking before the visitors burst through your doors: to ensure your entire staff also appreciate the significance to the business of all customer dealings over this boom period.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the south coast for a bit of a rest and to look at the quality and readiness of the area’s restaurants and recreational facilities.

I was staying at Uvongo for five nights and planned to eat out for both lunch and dinner every day. I wanted to see if I could find a local restaurant that served me so well in every respect and consideration that it resulted in my wanting to go back again. From many perspectives, this is the critical point for many restaurant (and other hospitality) businesses. Most likely, you will get the opportunity to serve the customer once. The skill lies in developing a relationship with the customer, which produces a situation whereby that customer keeps on returning. This won’t happen by chance. It has to be a designed-in strategy that ensures not only high-quality product (food), but equally, exceptional service and value for money prices.

During my five days, I visited many establishments in the area. There is no doubt that many served good food at the right price and others had first-class staff and great ambience, but to be honest, it was hard to find establishments that had it all — and remember, this was before the real pressure came on. It’s important for me to say that there was nothing dreadfully wrong with anywhere I visited.

However, it is equally important to say I got the impression that no one really wanted my money that badly. If there was one common weakness, it was to be found in the attitude of the staff. To all intents and purposes, they represented casual labour, reflecting very little interest in the customer, and it is against this backdrop that I make the following recommendation to all restaurateurs.

I suggest you close your business for one morning and get every member of your staff sitting in the restaurant, from 7 am through to midday. The objective of this training session is to examine this question: “What is involved in getting the customer to fall in love with you and the business?”. To a large extent the answer will come back to a need to empathise with the customer. In the main, all customers are the same and all want similar things, so it really shouldn’t be so hard to achieve excellent service.

As much as anything else, your training session serves to remind your staff that they can make a big difference. Get your staff to talk about the basics, but equally, ask them for ideas as to what can turn the experience into an exceptional occasion for the customer.

There could also be merit in getting the staff to role-play different ways of greeting and taking the customers’ orders. Here you would be looking for something a little different to the norm — heaven forbid the whole south coast greets us with “Hello my name is Jennifer and I am your waitron for this evening”. It is also important to stress that their earnings — the gratuities — are affected positively if they can make the customer feel special.

Likewise, if you don’t give a toss, no one is going to tip! It goes without saying that you the entrepreneur have got to ensure quality of product both in buying and what is produced in the kitchen.

This means you have to find out the truth from your customers as to the level of enjoyment from their visit before they leave. Always remember, inadequacy, in one form or another, can represent an opportunity to impress the customer and bring them back.

Anyone can make a mistake, however, if you can respond quickly to that mistake, in such a way that the customer not only feels you have righted a wrong, but that you have gone the extra mile, they will return. This demands as much of you as of your staff. You have to be present, you have to be interested and you have to see, ask and act.

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