How to Retain Retail and Hospitality Employees in a Post-Pandemic World

By: Stephen Bergeron, V.P. of Sales & Marketing North America at APG

These are trying times for restaurants and retailers. You’re dealing with supply chain issues and a labor shortage. Frustration is running high among customers, who too often are lashing out at retail and restaurant workers.

The “Great Resignation” has impacted all businesses, but employees in the leisure and hospitality industry are quitting their jobs at rates double the national average. Workers are looking for better pay and new career paths. Employees also expressed the need for employers to give better training and benefits to attract and retain workers.

Another main trigger for departure is the overall treatment of this workforce. Service staff often feel the brunt of customer frustrations due to longer lead times or shortages. If your business experiences enough ugly customer incidents, your staffing issues will only worsen. You need a plan to deal with customer frustrations based on three important components:

  • Set proper expectations with customers through transparent communications
  • Properly train staff to handle difficult customers
  • Focus on staff retention by making employees feel valued and needed

Setting Clear Customer Expectations

In recent years, there has been a strong focus on customer experience. Admittedly, it gets harder to provide an excellent customer experience when product shortages prevent you from stocking shelves or completing your menu. It’s even tougher when you can’t even hire enough employees to deliver the right level of service.

Over the past year, incidents of bad customer behavior have become too common. Customers are frustrated with the pandemic, product shortages, and long waits at restaurants. It’s a serious problem, prompting some retailers to team up with the Retail Industry Leaders Association on a campaign to ask shoppers for help in curbing the behavior.

But asking customers to behave isn’t enough. Retailers need to be proactive about communicating clearly with customers regarding shortages and staffing issues. Placing signs in prominent spots explaining the situation is helpful. When talking to customers, be sure to set expectations correctly. Be realistic when telling them when you expect an item to be back in stock. Offer to contact them when it is. At restaurants, have the hostess explain that service may take a little longer because you’re short-staffed.

If you’re straight with customers, you’re less likely to experience an ugly confrontation. Even when customers get angry with a business, they will return 70% of the time.

Staff Training for Conflict Resolution

In addition to transparency, businesses can avoid ugly confrontations by teaching staff how to diffuse difficult situations. Teach associates to treat customers with respect even when they’re angry. Teach them to use the right stance, gestures, facial expressions, and words that help angry customers simmer down. Associates that respond to shouting by getting even louder, rolling their eyes at customers, or failing to show empathy only make matters worse. Retail and restaurant staff are often ambassadors for your brand — and the more comfortable they feel mitigating frustrated customers, the better the outcome will be.

Retaining Smart, Qualified People

Staff retention goes hand in hand with training. A well-trained employee is more likely to stay longer in your employment because they know how to avoid bad situations. Beyond that, retail managers and restaurant owners need to make employees feel cherished by the organization. If you don’t, it’s too easy right now for employees to find another job.

Valuing employees isn’t just about paying a fair wage and offering benefits, although that is important. Many retail and hospitality employers now offer tuition reimbursement and management training for those looking for career advancement. Others offer insurance for part-time workers or retention bonuses. Supporting employees and the value they provide is also about communicating with them and listening when they have problems. You need to support them in trying times and in difficult customer situations, so they know you have their backs.

In rare cases, when employees are mistreated, it may come down to simply asking a customer to leave. A customer that crosses the line of abuse and disrespect is not a customer you want to keep coming back. One Cape Cod, MA, restaurant shut down for a “day of kindness” after staff had to deal with too much customer abuse. Show your employees you’re willing to take such a hard step, and they will show you loyalty. At the same time, you’re also telling the world you won’t stand for rude behavior.

Hospitality and retail industry employees have gone through a lot during the pandemic. Between business closings, employee furloughs, and burnout, they could use an extra sign of appreciation right now. Hopefully, the wave of service staff mistreatment, labor shortages, and supply chain issues will soon end. In the meantime, you can try to avoid them by setting the right expectations with customers, providing proper training for staff, and making your employees feel appreciated.