In a Pandemic, Does Customer Service Still Matter?

Everyone who’s in business understands the value of good customer service, and if they don’t, they really shouldn’t be in business. As customers, we also understand the value of good customer service and although we may not necessarily be able to give a clear definition of what it is, we know when we’ve received it and we definitely know when we haven’t.
Then along comes the COVID pandemic and everything we previously took for granted is thrown out the window. With chronic staff shortages, enforced social distancing and an air of uncertainty lingering over the hospitality industry like a bad smell, to what extent can restaurateurs afford to take their eye off the customer service ball? Does customer service still matter?

Does customer service still matter, Padstow, Cornwall
Even in the depths of winter, Padstow is lovely…and busy. A foodie’s dream destination.

“I’m going to get a menu,” I said, spotting one on a table just vacated by a couple on the other side of the dining room.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Came Jack’s surprisingly curt response. “It’s a restaurant, someone will bring us a menu.”
“But we’ve been sitting here for ten minutes already, it’s dead time. If I get a menu we can at least be deciding what we want to eat.”
“Let’s just wait until someone brings us a menu.”

So we waited… and waited. After another ten minutes, watching Jack’s expression grow more annoyed, I went and got a menu. A further fifteen minutes elapsed and still no-one came to our table. I could see waiters bringing food out of the kitchen but none of them made the slightest attempt to catch anyone’s eye, their attention focussed solely on delivering orders.
“We should leave, I’ve had enough of this.” Jack pushed the menu aside and looked at me.
“It’s now twenty to nine. How likely do you think it is that we’ll get a table somewhere else at this point? I don’t want to spend the next hour wandering from restaurant to restaurant before having to return here to find this table gone.”
So we continued to wait.

Poor customer service
We had booked a few days away in Padstow to celebrate Jack’s birthday by indulging our passion for good food. In a town that appears to be perpetually popular with foodies, we managed to book Paul Ainsworth’s Number Six for lunch on the 29th, and dinner at Rick Stein’s St Petroc’s Bistro for the evening of the 30th, Jack’s birthday.

The Old Custom House, Padstow, Cornwall
The Old Custom House sits directly on the harbour and provides good accommodation in a perfect position.

This was the evening of the day we arrived, the 28th, and we were dining at our hotel, The Old Custom House on the harbour. We had made a reservation as the hotel restaurant was closed due to staff shortages and its large bar area was extremely popular and apt to fill quickly.

I finally managed to attract the attention of a woman who seemed to be wandering between the kitchen and the reception, and asked her why no-one had come to our table. She explained that, due to staff shortages, diners were required to order at the bar. She said she wished it were not so, but needs must and all that. I remarked with a fixed smile that it would perhaps be helpful to have been told that when we were shown to our table, or even to have a little sign to that effect on the tables. She made no response to my suggestion.

Fish n chips at The Old Custom House, Padstow
At The Old Custom House in Padstow, the food was tasty enough to lift our bad mood at the lack of good customer service

In the long run, the food was good enough to stave off our bad mood but we headed back to our rooms feeling like the holiday had not exactly got off to the start we had been hoping for. We felt as if we’d just dined in a motorway service station, albeit one with good food. We would not be dining here again and would probably give them a mediocre rating on TripAdvisor.

Excellent Customer Service
The following day we dined at Paul Ainsworth’s Number Six and the difference could not have been more marked. From the moment we stepped through the front door we felt as if we were expected and valued as customers. Yes it was expensive but we felt as if we had received value for money and that, to a business, is priceless. We would not hesitate to return and to recommend the place to friends, indeed, we already have.

Pumpkin Brodo at Paul Ainsworth's Number Six
Pumpkin Brodo at Paul Ainsworth’s Number Six. Excellent food, consummate service – we will definitely return.

Mediocre customer service
The evening of Jack’s birthday we dined at Risk Stein’s St Petroc’s Bistro. Having been Rick Stein fans for many years and having two of his cookbooks which we regularly use, we were really looking forward to the experience. Unfortunately, it did not live up to expectation.
Overall, the food was good, but only good, not great and not particularly memorable but the customer service experience was very disappointing, and we would not return, nor would we recommend it to friends.

Read Jack’s blog about our dining experiences at Paul Ainsworth’s and Rick Stein’s.

Why does good customer service still matter?
Far from being just another thing that we will all have to get used to not being as good as it used to be, like being kept on hold for an eternity as you try to speak to a doctor; like empty shelves in the supermarket, and long queues at the petrol station, it seems to me that customer service is more important than ever. With the hospitality industry still reeling from lockdowns and enforced closures; the alarming rate of new infections due to the Omicron variant, and the continued fear campaign being waged by the media, it’s vital, not just to entice people to still venture out to eat and to ensure they’re safe when they do so, but to encourage them to want to return and recommend others to do the same.

Staff may be in short supply – not that you’d know that at Paul Ainsworth’s Number Six – but if you have to compromise on your service level, ensure your customers are fully aware of the situation. Had our waiter at The Old Custom House explained, when he showed us to our table, that we needed to go to the bar to order and to collect our own cutlery, we would have had a far better dining experience, not least by avoiding a wasted hour in which tempers became frayed. At Rick Stein’s, they should not have tried to squeeze a second cover onto a table, it simply did not work. We would have been disappointed not to be able to dine there but we would have returned at a less busy time and would have had a better experience. Now we won’t. More damage than good has been done.

Let’s hope 2022 sees a return to some form of normality and I for one, hope that improved customer service is at the forefront.

About Andy 227 Articles
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is an author, freelance travel writer, award-winning blogger, and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites and travel guides. Author of The banana Road - It's Tenerife But Not As You Know It and Pocket Rough Guide Tenerife & La Gomera. Former Tenerife Expert for The Telegraph and Overseas Consultant for Inntravel. Published in The Independent, The Telegraph, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine and Wizz.

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