Why empathy is the answer to shifting customer expectations

Restaurants are competing with apps and websites for attention — but humanity and hospitality can give them an edge, says Darden Restaurants’ Ali Charri.

Ipsos | What the Future: Work | Why empathy is the answer to shifting customer expectations
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  • Kate MacArthur Managing Editor of What the Future
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In the new world of work, service industries have to navigate customer and staffing shifts related to remote work, labor shortages and the rise in delivery. Darden Restaurants, the largest full-service restaurant company in the U.S. with nearly 1,900 locations across eight brands, ranging from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille, has faced these issues firsthand. While technology has driven many changes, Ali Charri, Darden’s senior vice president of strategy and insights, believes the key to winning in this era of flexibility is human empathy.

Kate MacArthur: What do people value now in a service experience and going forward?

Ali Charri: We’ve been talking about convenience for years and the convenience trends are here to stay. When you think about flexibility and you talk about convenience at the same time, they go hand in hand.

The reason we’ve seen an explosion in demand for delivery is driven by convenience. The reason we’ve seen an explosion in the growth and adoption of technology is driven by convenience. And it was the driver of the growth in demand for off-premise [takeout and curbside].

MacArthur: How does that change peoples’ expectations for service?

Charri: It changes a lot of things, not just our expectations. We’ve separated products from experiences. In the past, when you wanted to go and buy a pair of shoes, you would go to the mall, and you would get excited about it. It was an event. Now all you do is go online and order three pairs of shoes from somewhere and you try one at home and you return the other two.

That excitement has been stripped out of that experience. As a result, technology has made many experiences more transactional. Tech is also changing the customer service model. It’s impacting how we deliver service to the customer.

MacArthur: How do you get the human factor right in services, and particularly dining?

Charri: As an industry, we should double down on the concept of real human service or service anchored in humanity. We are in the people business. Food has always been the basis for social life.

MacArthur: How do service providers balance experiences to be how and when people want services?

Charri: That’s the challenge, and the key word here is balance. Technology is wonderful as long as it's used properly. At least in the full-service segment, we want technology to enhance the service experience, but not replace it. Unfortunately, you’re seeing some operators out there starting to use technology as a complete replacement for human service. And the reason why in the long term is it's more economical, more efficient. And in the short term, given the labor challenges, it’s a solution. Delivery is doing well but that model is difficult to navigate. The third-party delivery providers are not making money, the restaurant operators are not making money, and the consumer is paying a premium for a less optimal product. I don’t know how sustainable it is.

MacArthur: How can brands prepare for uncertainties like labor shortages and tech issues?

Charri: You're always going to face challenges. This is not rocket science. Happy team members will lead to happy guests, and happy guests will lead to strong business performance and happy shareholders. Our team members take pride in serving our guests, and they'll do whatever it takes to make sure that they're satisfied.

MacArthur: How can any service brand learn from those things like team service to provide maximum service?

Charri: We leverage technology to enhance the experience. For instance, settling the check at the end of the meal. People don't want to wait 10 minutes for their check to show up and then another five minutes for the credit card transaction to be done. In some of our restaurants and some of our brands, we have pay-at-the-table devices where you don't even need to ask the server for the check. On the subject of training, what we try to emphasize is to teach our team members to serve with empathy. Empathy is about being nice and understanding. We want our guests to feel that they are being acknowledged, feel like somebody is actually thinking about them, and somebody wants to know them and ensure that they get what they need. Those are the kind of feelings we want to grow within people. There's another avenue to this.

MacArthur: What is that?

Charri: We are not just competing against other full-service restaurants or against delivery. We’re competing for people’s time. So, everything is being redefined unless we remind people of the specialness of being together and having real connections.

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The author(s)
  • Kate MacArthur Managing Editor of What the Future