Handling difficult customers is an ever-present challenge in restaurants. But, like everything else in our post-COVID world, this too has become more complex. In recent weeks, restaurants have scrambled to reopen by reconfiguring their dining rooms for social distancing and equipping team members with masks, digital thermometers, and disposable menus. Dine-in restaurants are attempting to serve customers with a pent-up need to get out of the house and restart some semblance of normal. Some of these patrons comply with social distancing and mask use, but others are defiantly ignoring these guidelines. This leaves restaurants — specifically, front-of-house employees — tasked with managing customer compliance on top of trying to provide great customer service.
To balance these varied levels of customer cooperation with protecting the health and safety of everyone in the restaurant, team member training is critical. As reopening guidelines and guest attitudes change and evolve, restaurants must continuously monitor what’s happening both inside and outside their four walls so they can train team members to handle guest challenges and update training based on the shifting service environment.
Below is a step-by-step plan for quickly creating and adapting your team member training program in response to COVID-19 guidelines and customer demands:
1. Train team members on scenarios as well as tools. Most team member training programs focus on tools and procedures, like how to use a digital thermometer to take a customer’s temperature, or how to sanitize guest tables. These protocols are obviously important, but what about when a guest refuses to wear a mask? Create a list of possible guest challenges and conduct role-playing sessions so team members are equipped to handle touchy situations, especially those that put other guests and team members at risk, and when to involve a manager. It’s also crucial to remind team members why following their training is essential — not just to them but to guests and the larger community.
2. Review federal, state, and local guidelines every week. Assign one of your managers or your Safety Officer with staying on top of restaurant operating guidelines. By having one person in charge of monitoring these mandates, it places the responsibility on one person and eliminates the need for all managers to keep up with this information.
3. Conduct regular safety and compliance walk-throughs. During each shift, the manager on duty must walk the dining room to make sure team members and guests are complying with all service and safety guidelines. This helps take some of the enforcement pressure off of team members and demonstrates your restaurant’s commitment to the health and safety of all.
4. Use pre-shift meetings as a key communications tool. Take a few minutes before each shift to gather all team members and discuss how the restaurant is adhering to COVID guidelines. Make it a point to cover a different topic each time, like hand washing, sanitizing, and mask use, to keep team members engaged. If someone on the team has done an exceptional job, recognize and praise them in front of their colleagues. Pre-shift meetings are a great opportunity to answer questions and alert team members to any new training requirements.
5. Conduct weekly management meetings. Gather all managers once a week to review any new guidelines or requirements identified by your designated manager or Safety Officer that might require new training. In addition, each manager presents what they’ve observed during their shifts — success stories, new challenges, and recommended changes to existing procedures.
6. Provide team members access to the latest information, tools, and training. Team members are more likely to carry out what they’ve been trained to do when you make compliance as easy as possible. Make Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), FAQs, and training information readily available through employee bulletin boards or go digital with restaurant operations software.
7. Deliver ongoing team member support. As part of their shift walks, managers should identify team members who may need additional compliance and guideline training. The goal is not to punish but to provide additional support to help those team members be successful. Support can take the form of on-the-spot coaching, an offline conversation, or retraining on specific procedures or scenarios. Providing this level of oversight and development makes it clear to team members that compliance is an ongoing priority.
8. Lather, rinse, repeat. This process of presenting a training plan, administering the training, and supporting the training with oversight and coaching, is critical to making your COVID compliance efforts successful. In fact, this process can be used for any restaurant training program, including the introduction of new menu items, upselling, and food safety.
As restaurants continue to feel their way through a complex and confusing path to normalcy, training all team members should be a constant goal. Team member training is not a “set it and forget it” effort. With the rapid pace of change in today’s hospitality environment, safeguarding the health and safety of your team members and guests is your most important endeavor.