The year 2020 has brought with it challenges and circumstances in which we’ve had to change, adapt, reinvent, and innovate. Everyone has been affected by COVID-19, but the impact of this pandemic is completely unique to every individual, community, business, and industry.
Restaurants are some of the businesses hit hardest by COVID-19, resulting in the loss of clients and decreased customer engagement and making for a true survival of the fittest tale. Naturally, many restaurant owners have been pessimistic about the future of their businesses, especially since the difficult task of retaining customer engagement during COVID-19 is key to remaining open.
While the lack of dine-in customers is daunting, this is the time for businesses in the hospitality industry to get one step ahead with customer engagement in order to come out the other side.
Why focus on customer engagement during COVID-19?
Right now, the health of the customers should be the biggest priority for every business owner. This is totally logical and irrefutable. It is also the reason why new public health and safety regulations require restaurant owners to implement preventive measures that eventually harm their businesses—and as a restaurant owner or a deeply concerned staff member, you’re probably thinking your job ends there.
Nothing can be done anymore. Loss of clients is natural. Decreased customer engagement during COVID-19 is normal. Let’s survive the patio season and wait it out until next year. While these kinds of thoughts are understandable, actively increasing customer engagement and putting extra effort into retaining every customer can help your business pull through this uncertain time.
Many restaurant owners are doing their best to make their location safe for staff and clients, yet as for customer engagement during COVID-19, a common mistake is thinking it ends with updating your website. You might have noticed that all restaurants have updated their websites to include a statement about new rules in place to guarantee potential visitors a safe dining experience. Curious about what else you can do? Looking for some ideas and inspiration? Then you should read on! We’ve compiled a list of the best practices that can boost restaurants’ customer engagement during COVID-19.
Online interaction goes a longer way than you think
This year is undoubtedly rough, but it is far from the downfall of genuine customer engagement. If you still think that only face-to-face interaction creates bonds, you’ll be surprised by the strong connections the Internet can form. In fact, it’s the perfect medium to get to know your regular and potential customers.
For example, posting a COVID-19 notice on your website is the bare minimum of possible online interactions. No need to delete them—it is still a nice gesture to let your website visitors know that you are adapting to changes and taking care of your clients and staff. You can also put up a printed sign in front of your restaurant’s entrance. Whatever you did, don’t be afraid to step it up!
In times of COVID-19, it’s impossible to overshare helpful information—letting your clients know more about safety measures and precautions you have taken is the way to go. Your COVID notice and a sign on the door should be an open invitation to learn more about what you have done. Many customers are being extra cautious and would prefer visiting a place that explicitly gives them a preview of a safe dining experience.
For example, you can share details of your safety protocol, what rules your staff have to follow, mentions of any renovations to facilitate social distancing guidelines, etc. You can go the extra mile by including photos of your location at operating hours. Reassure your customers by showing you have an effective response plan, like preventing symptomatic staff coming to work and regular sanitation and cleaning.
Extend your reach to include more topics than just regulations. Be sure to shift the focus away from COVID content as well, too, to keep spirits high. This can be done through takeout and delivery updates, special offerings, deals, new menu items, and many more. Spread the word across your social media channels and send out promotional emails (if applicable).
Unleash your inner blogger
Customer engagement relies on content social media users enjoy seeing and interacting with regularly. Luckily for restauranteurs, food is one of the three main factors that comprise social media’s most loved content. We are always excited to come back online for other contenders (namely cats and dogs) but food content is a perfect medium for restaurant owners to connect with their customers on new levels.
Instagram is a food blogger’s paradise. The app, that was created largely to share what you ordered in a restaurant or cooked up at home, stays loyal to its origin by promoting viral food content. Sped up recipe videos, Instagram live cooking shows, restaurant AMAs, healthy meal plans, food ASMR, international street food, and gastro tourism are just some of the available options—everything to suit a foodie’s taste.
If you learn a little bit more about what type of content ranks highly on Instagram (or any other platform), you’ll be able to land on your customers’ customized explore page at no cost to you. By demonstrating how cool your brand aesthetic is, making your videos attractive and shareable, and using popular hashtags, you are sure to observe increased customer engagement immediately.
Additionally, you can prompt your followers to leave comments under your posts by asking questions, such as: What’s your favourite ice cream flavour? What drink would you like to see on our menu? People like to share tastes and experiences. Active commentators are quick to give you valuable feedback, ideas for new menu items, and words of affirmation.
Conquer a new social media platform
Although it’s great to stay focused on one social media platform with a good following, like your Instagram account, be aware of new trends for customer engagement opportunities. The recent popularity of TikTok is a perfect example to showcase how trends benefit businesses.
The platform with the most unpredictable algorithm can give you thousands of followers in a matter of hours, and your content has a higher chance of getting noticed. Keep making content that you would enjoy watching on loop and keep trying. Eventually, you could get on the “For You” page of foodies in your area.
Thankfully, it seems that TikTok’s algorithm favours creators at least once, so your business’s success could depend on something random and surprising. Get as creative as possible: make video loops, try out food ASMR (believe me—it’s powerful!), tell a story, share your successes and failures, or use trending sounds. By doing this, you could reach out to millions of users, which is valuable in making your restaurant a hot spot for food lovers in your area.
Win over new regulars
Have you ever been tempted by a $0 delivery on UberEats? The few dollars in savings makes a huge difference. Special offers on delivery and takeout options like these are an effective way to keep people coming back for more, and are a necessary sacrifice to help your business survive during the pandemic.
Right now, when deliveries are preferred by the majority, almost every restaurant has the option available. To stand out, you have to make it impossible for customers to consider the alternatives. Two items priced as one, discounts for takeout, and even smaller things like throwing a few extra goodies in the bag will help create new regular clients.
Take the lead on giving back to others
How can I help anyone when I need help myself? As a part of the community of businesses that were impacted the greatest, you can find solace in knowing you’re not alone in this struggle. This is the perfect time to get to know other businesses in your area, reconnect with your competitors, form partnerships, and donate to charities together. Cooperation makes survival easier and far more rewarding.
The benefits you’ll receive for being active in your community at such a challenging time are increased customer engagement during COVID-19 (and long-term), customer loyalty, and free exposure. Examples of charitable efforts include special days in which you offer deals, limited offers, and even free meals for essential workers, like healthcare workers who have been working fearlessly throughout the pandemic.
Another idea that’s simple to implement and won’t make a hole in your budget is adding donation cuts to some items on your menu. Making it easier for people to donate a small percentage of money from their purchase is a great way to show you care about the community you are serving.
Share your good deeds online and you’re sure to receive support and encouraging messages from the public. Post about inspiring stories to your social media platforms and update your website to list donation opportunities and special deals for essential workers. Additionally, you can share your experiences on a blog. Other restaurant owners and professionals in the industry would be very interested to learn how you are coping during the pandemic, what challenges you faced as a restaurant, and how you are helping out others.
Embrace technology to welcome the bright future for your restaurant
Needless to say, the world will be forever changed after the pandemic—this includes the world of business As the general public had to digitalize their daily lives, like ordering groceries via apps, working remotely, and learning online, restaurant owners should also think about using digital solutions in as many business operations as possible.
Technology allows for true flexibility, letting you track sales and customer engagement, forecast demands, be proactive, and protect your business. Some owners may believe that technology and online engagement are temporary due to the pandemic, and the need will decrease over time. Contrary to that belief, the trend appears to be the opposite: many customers have gotten used to their new way of life while steering clear of exposing themselves to risks. Rather than waiting to recover from financial losses, successful restaurant owners should take this time as an opportunity to improve and reboot their internal operations for the bright future of their brand.
But wait, there’s more! This is part one of the Survival of the Fittest Restaurants series devoted to sharing effective tips and best practices for restaurants to increase customer engagement during COVID-19. Stay tuned for part two.