Are you managing your customers’ perceptions?

One of the key things I try to instill into my training and consulting clients is that, once a new hospitality business has settled — and is no longer the shiny, new ‘boy on the block’ — it is wise to drive the evolution of the business by listening to your customers. Putting this another way, if you give the public what you think they want, you risk having a mediocre business; but if you give them what they tell you they want, you will have a thriving business.

We normally advise our clients to seek regular feedback on customer perceptions of their businesses by conducting regular ‘mystery shops’ by specially trained observers. Most of our clients conduct these regularly as a standard management control system. We recommend they are done once a week, every week.

Strangely, there is a recurring issue cropping-up regularly on perception surveys that most of our clients seem to ignore — the noise levels or acoustics in their restaurants and cafes. Negative comments about the inability to communicate to guests and to staff are becoming more and more prevalent as the trend for austere, industrial décor becomes fashionable. Bare concrete walls may be ‘in’, but they don’t make a hospitality environment very user friendly.

Despite what you might think, it’s not all about the food, the service or the cool environment. Dining out is a social activity; relatively few people dine alone. We don’t just go to hospitality establishments to eat; we mostly go with a hidden agenda. We go to seduce, to reward, to do business, to recognise special occasions, to catch up with friends, etc. All these activities revolve around the need to talk to each other. If we can’t do that it largely reduces the positive perception of the experience.

Don’t leap to thinking that I’m arguing for monastic silence here. We all like a vibrant buzz when we go somewhere, but there comes a point where that buzz becomes an intrusive noise, and that point is reached when we find it difficult to communicate. To be fair, the younger generation doesn’t seem to care as much as older adults. I often see them packed into bars and restaurants, literally yelling at each other. Because they can’t hear they yell and because everybody is yelling you have to yell louder to make yourself understood, as a result the noise level escalates to an unbearable level.

I have sometimes pondered if the rise of internet dating and hook-up web sites has arisen because pubs, bars and nightclubs are no longer seen as appropriate places to meet lovers and partners by many people, because you can’t communicate easily in these places. In the past, they were more approachable and were the default.

When considering high noise levels in restaurants and cafes particularly, the question that comes to mind is: ‘Are the owners alienating a more lucrative, slightly older market by not addressing this?’ As well as many comments on perception surveys, members of my circle of friends have often commented that they will not return to this place or that because of the noise level. When I mention this to clients, they often seem to acknowledge the perception but then proceed to put it in the ‘too hard basket’ and fail to address it.

The services of an acoustic engineer can often produce fairly simple, relatively inexpensive solutions to reduce the noise to a reasonable level. This often involves putting noise absorbing material under the table tops, acoustic paneling on the ceiling and tapestries and the like on the walls. All these reduce the hard surfaces that cause sound to bounce around the room. I have even seen tightly strung fishing line around the top of the walls that converts sonic energy into kinetic energy (vibration), like a reverse stereo speaker.

The important thing to bear in mind here is it doesn’t matter what you think of your business that will drive its success — it’s the perception of your customers, and if your customers don’t think your expensive, cool environment is comfortable to be in, they are unlikely to return. I suggest you invest a small amount of money to find-out what they really think, and then react to the feedback.

If you don’t want to invest in proper, quantified feedback at least observe during busy times. If you see people having to lean over your tables to hear other people, or you see people leaning over to talk directly into the ear of another, you have an issue that will inevitably reduce peoples’ perception of the experience.