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COVID-19 and customer service

Ada Slivinski: The pandemic has been devastating for small businesses – and one of the best hopes for survival is making loyal customers feel special.
Your meal, and the kitchen staff has composed a short poem in your honour

As we enter 2021, small businesses are struggling to survive and Covid has turned the status quo on its head in so many ways. Many businesses have had to downsize and operate only at a reduced capacity.

Restaurants have been hit hard. They can’t seat anywhere near as many people as they used to, and large parties are non-existent. With revenue down dramatically and restrictions around alcohol sales reducing one of their biggest money makers, restaurant owners and staff are fighting for their livelihoods. The industry has been compared to the Titanic’s orchestra, continuing to play even as the ship sank.

Though times are exceptionally tough, the crash is not inevitable, and those businesses that come out on the other side will be stronger for it. The trick is getting there.

With so much out of their control, some restaurants have turned to one thing they can control: service. Moving more slowly, each customer interaction can be more meaningful.

During the pandemic, our family has made a habit of going out for dinner often, in order to support our favourite spots and also to escape the monotony of cooking every night. We’ve had owners and managers stop by and thank us for coming, and could tell they really meant it. They took the time to crouch down and chat with our kids (from a safe distance).

The conversation always ends the same way: “we’ll be back.”

There’s an overwhelming sense that everyone who is there wants to be there; that changes the atmosphere dramatically.

The service industry has often struggled with recruiting and retention. Now, many spots have gone down to core staff; the camaraderie and passion is palpable. And palatable!

In his book Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, marketing professor Scott Galloway writes “In any crisis, there is opportunity; the greater and more disruptive the crisis, the greater the opportunities.” We have seen the strong (huge players like Amazon) get stronger and the weak go out of business, but as people seek out human connection, the small businesses that are best at customer service have a real shot at survival and even success.

Restaurants aren’t the only places we’ve seen innovation in customer interaction. Our favourite book store, The Bookman, has been creating personalized reading recommendations and children’s book bags. It’s a practice that takes a lot of time, but breeds loyalty. It may have taken a pandemic, but British Columbians can now renew their driver's license over the phone or online.

If I were to make a prediction, there are two types of businesses that will thrive this year and beyond: those that can provide goods and services fastest and cheapest (Amazon, Skip the Dishes, etc.) and those best at making people feel human. This is where small businesses excel; this is their secret sauce.

People will always be willing to pay for that.

Ada Slivinski is the Founder & Principal of Jam PR, a boutique agency focused on helping small businesses get big exposure. You can reach her at [email protected]