The Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges aplenty for businesses nationwide but the country’s 44,000-plus restaurants and cafes have arguably suffered more than most.

Protracted lockdowns, regulations restricting the number of diners and size of functions, a dearth of tourists, and staff shortages courtesy of the country’s drastic decline in temporary migration, have pushed scores of hospo business owners to the brink.

Not waving, drowning

Market research organisation Ibisworld forecast restaurant industry revenue would decrease by a whopping 15 per cent in the 2019-20 financial year and recover by 5.1 per cent in 2020-21.

‘Government restrictions coupled with a sharp fall in discretionary income is expected to limit industry performance during the Covid-19 pandemic’, the firm’s Covid-19 Impact Update – Restaurants in Australia report noted.

‘Restrictions on venue capacities remain in place and may continue to do so in 2022 limiting customer volume and turnover while fixed costs continue to mount. As a result, industry profit margins have been constrained during the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The battle to rebuild

Some entrepreneurial operators have fought back, pivoting to new activities and income streams to keep their kitchens ticking over and boost their bottom lines.

Australia’s hospitality industry is notoriously competitive and businesses that have managed to stay in business will need to work harder than ever to get new customers through the door and keep old ones coming back.

Offering a stand-out customer experience can help cafes and restaurants build a strong brand and a loyal following. Here are some ways you can do so.

Get active online

A website and social media presence… if you don’t have them, get them – fast! These days, consumers go straight to the net when they’re looking for a place to catch up with friends, have a night out or simply grab a quick coffee, bite or takeaway. Before committing to spend their hard earned money, they want to see pictures of the venue and check out the menu. If your café or restaurant accepts reservations, many customers will find it more convenient to make them online. Online ordering facilities are also a must, if you’re doing takeaway and home delivery.

In today’s times, online reviews are the digital equivalent of word of mouth recommendations. Encouraging your customers to review your venue and like, comment upon and share your social media posts, will ensure prospective diners have plenty of ‘food for thought’ when they search for your business.  At the same time, replying to comments, even negative ones, is important to ensure you can create that one on one experience.

Keep the content coming

Experienced restaurateurs and café owners know their messaging can’t be ‘set and forget’. However, keeping it fresh with regular new updates across all your marketing channels will help keep your messaging interesting for customers, discourage them from taking their custom somewhere , ensure you remain connected with customers and encourage them to return again and again.

Get up close and personal

Become accustomed to receiving promotional emails and texts that address you by name? Today’s customer experience automation platforms have made personalised marketing feasible, even for small businesses with modest marketing budgets. Investing in one and collecting data, such as email addresses, birthdays and anniversaries, will allow you to deliver personalised offers – think free dessert or drink – that tell patrons you’re thinking of them and encourage them to celebrate their special occasions with you.

Bouquets and brickbats: seek customer feedback

It’s impossible to improve if you don’t know how you’re doing. That’s why it’s vital to ask for feedback about your business and the things it does well – and badly. Offering a small sweetener can encourage your customers to share their thoughts, online or via an email survey. When they do, it’s important to respond promptly, particularly if what they have to tell you is less than positive.

Indeed, if you automate the process this will also will ensure you’ll be in receipt of stronger data to make better decisions and deploy tactical communication more effectively, for example by establishing triggers and rules to automatically issue the right message to the right customer or prospect at the right time—or perhaps to all your customers at the same time. For example, your system can be configured to automatically send a survey to the email address or SMS after a patron has visited the restaurant or to request the anniversary date after they’ve provided their birthday details.

Building a brighter future

Dedication and grit have helped scores of Australian hospitality business owners weather the Covid crisis thus far. If you’re among their number, investing in technology and activities to improve your customer experience will help to boost your patronage, as the economy opens up.

Will Drysdale is sales manager for Asia Pacific at ActiveCampaign.