The impersonal nature and limited face time of food-delivery apps have redefined customer relations, something the traditional restaurants can learn
I have written in earlier columns about the online foodie market, where one orders with the click of a button. Currently, Swiggy seems to be winning due to the sheer strength of keeping its service promise. While chatting with a hospitality executive of a five star hotel, I told him how satisfying it was to not argue over a faulty order.
Although Swiggy has democratised the food business, it brings a promise of not arguing with a customer when something is amiss — a huge plus. To be fair, Zomato does so, too.
I remember, back in the day, in luxury hospitality chains across the world, empowering the staff was the mantra of the day. For instance, a staff member had the right to waive off an amount if a customer was dissatisfied. In a restaurant, bars were set depending on the level of the employees, X for a receptionist, Y for a manager, Z for a senior captain, etc. Of course, there was always the option of bringing a free dessert for a favoured customer, but that was discretionary. Back then, company policies were being set to make these practices normative, and also grant employees certain independence and ownership.
A decade and a half later, it seems like it worked, and became a mainstream practice, with online food retailers exercising their discretion. However, in brick and mortar establishments, it still gets a little more complicated as the hotel executive told me. Old-school thought said waiving away an amount, or service fee for a dissatisfied, or even an irate guest, was a knee-jerk reaction. This might have opened the door to slippery customers and dishonest employees who may not pass on the benefits to the guest.
Then, the social media boom happened, and every voice got amplified. Till then, guests wrote on comment cards and dropped them into boxes hoping for reparation. Soon enough, they took to Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to complain. Peer review sites watered down the impact of seasoned reviewers, and it was open season. Initially, as panic sunk in, the industry froze for a bit. Could you offer a freebie online in the comments section to assuage a guest, and then be inundated? It could happen — set the bar for how to get free stuff.
Morning meetings were spent reviewing TripAdvisor comments and designated responders were assigned. Some hotels felt general managers should respond to emphasise the complaint was reaching the right ears, others decided section heads, directly related to the complaint, should intervene.
In the past few years, the paranoia has abated. Hotels are no longer intimidated by online discontent. Of course, there are still critical areas like discrimination, but for run-of-the-mill complaints, the hospitality world takes it in its stride.
That’s both good and bad. Now, the outrage cycle comes with an expiry date of usually 24 hours. So, whilst virality was once seen as a fear, its impact is felt to be diminishing now. This has removed the spectre of fear that hung over hospitality professionals for a few years. On the other hand, this sense of immunity leads to a slackening of service. Though there have always been dissatisfied guests, the increase in the channels of expression should not render them unimportant.
The answer lies in what online food retailers are doing so well — remove the argument from the issue. There is no second guessing, it’s all systematic. When a step fails, there is reparation. The impersonal nature and limited face time helps make these resolutions easier than it does at a restaurant, where the tone of voice, facial expression, etc all add to a bad experience. But, it also provides a valuable lesson — online companies have turned the impersonal nature of their service into an asset. Should hotels and restaurants then get more impersonal? I don’t think so, but they should strip their processes of individual quirks — the best hotel service companies have been doing it for decades. The new kids on the block bring back the same lesson to their brick and mortar cousins.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad.