Editorial Work

IS THE CUSTOMER ALWAYS RIGHT?

Opinion piece by Shauna Leigh for The Port Report, Portarlington, Victoria

December 2020

*Names and identifying details have been removed to protect the privacy of individuals and businesses.

Pivot. The word of 2020. 

 

It was only ten months ago when countries around the world closed overnight. Business plans and projections for the year became obsolete, and teams were left looking at each other saying, “what now?”

 

While many industries scrambled to keep afloat, the hospitality industry was sidelined. Fridges were full of stock, rosters were made, parties and weddings were booked. In a matter of days, hundreds of people lost their jobs. Restaurants and cafes closed, unsure when and if they would ever open their doors again. 

 

The Bellarine was no different, and businesses looked for new and meaningful ways to engage with the community.

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“I was amazed at how quickly our local pubs and coffee shops were able to adjust to being closed,” said one patron. “I loved seeing the rules thrown out the window and people using their creativity to keep their businesses open and paying wages.”

 

As a community, we rallied. Consumers focused on supporting local, understanding that the product might not be perfect, but the effort was there. “I really appreciated all of their efforts; sometimes, that great pub meal was the highlight of the week.”

 

But how has that narrative switched with the easing of restrictions?  

 

The service industry is proceeding with caution—watching countries like Spain, where figures were on a downward trend until the hospitality sector reopened. 

 

“We see hundreds of people over the course of a week,” said one local operator. “And while it may seem like the virus is gone, it’s not. It is our responsibility to maintain these new systems and protocols to protect our staff and our patrons.”

 

In an industry that thrives off creating a welcoming environment and connecting with the consumer, there are many boxes to check to operate safely. Capacity caps, increased sanitation requirements, distanced seating, patron logs, time restrictions. Combined, they create a hospitality experience that is unrecognizable from the one we left in March. 

 

What is the biggest challenge since reopening the doors? “Simply put, customer satisfaction,” said one local business owner. “We won’t survive as a business if we don’t make changes and do things a different way. Now we are trying to integrate customers back into a new service, and that’s a challenge for the customer who already has set expectations.” 

 

“Our biggest thing is that we need people to be patient as we all work through this new normal,” said another operator.  

 

If you have worked in hospitality, you are familiar with the phrase ‘the customer is always right.’ But in the new COVID-normal, is that still the case?

 

History has shown consumer mindsets shift after a crisis of this size. The way we dine out has also changed. So how do we match the expectation to reality? 

 

“We have put a huge amount of time into these new experiences, and now we are at the front line of changing the customer expectation,” said the same owner. “We’re not going to get everything right; all we can do is our best.” 

 

So, once again, we are being asked to pivot (are you dizzy yet?). Similar to how we rallied around businesses when the pandemic first hit, a gentle understanding that the product might not be perfect, but the effort is there might make for a smoother transition for both venue and patron in what is sure to be a busy summer on the Bellarine.