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What restaurants teach us about human experience

No business is immune from getting the human experience right.

In the realm of human experience, few businesses are subjected to the same degree of customer broadcast (aka reviews) as restaurants. Without including personal social media accounts, there are at least half a dozen large mainstream review aggregators, led by the likes of TripAdvisor.

The volume of reviews is vast, and the factors influencing the experience are highly nuanced. The standards for the hospitality industry, which by definition is all about people, go way beyond just being hospitable.

From a human perspective, eating food that has been prepared by someone else requires a high degree of trust. As ordinary citizens, we can write off the possibility that someone might want to poison us, but we do want to know that proper hygiene protocols have been followed. We also want them to tell us the truth in terms of the use of ingredients that are either allergens or which contravene religious dietary laws.

Our culinary likes and dislikes are deeply subjective, often having their roots in experiences we can’t even remember. For example, someone who is otherwise happy to eat cauliflower would hate cauliflower purée if they can’t abide the texture. Just because there’s no rationality behind this dislike, doesn’t make it any less valid.

Of course, our deep emotional connection with food mostly manifests positively, which explains foodie culture. We own more cookbooks, with more recipes than we can ever cook, we watch thousands of hours of cooking shows on TV, and we follow top chefs on Instagram.

It’s when things go wrong that restaurateurs have a problem, and the thing is that one can upset diners with perfectly good food that just happens to fall foul of deep-seated dislikes. And, because the dislike has its roots in emotions, there is no surprise that the customer complaint can become ‘emotional’.

Further complicating the matter is that we tend to regard our preferences as being an absolute standard. Instead of saying, “this is not to my taste”, we’ll pass a judgment along the lines of, “this is terrible food”.

Of course, the basis for a customer complaint could be an actual technical fault, or just limited cooking abilities leading to flavourless or uninteresting food. In the case of the latter, it’s probably the judgment of the restaurateur that what is being served is ‘fine’. Whether it’s front of house, or in the kitchen, the culinary experience is riven with subjectivity.

The same applies to the décor or ambience. The shiny gold curtains loved by the restaurateur’s interior design sister-in-law might not necessarily appeal to a broad audience.

With possible customer complaints covering the spectrum from actual technical faults to personal taste, being a successful restaurateur requires an especial prescience in designing the experience, as well as a unique set of management skills. This industry is not for the fainthearted.

The hospitality industry is a useful example of the effects of the human dimension. However, it’s not unique; it just happens to be an extreme case study of what happens in a less overt version in other industries, whether it’s banking, retail, healthcare or education. Behind every wallet there is a human.

Restaurants open their doors every day knowing that they cater to nuanced human preferences. I’m not saying that this type of awareness is completely absent in other industries, but it appears that it’s not as acutely felt.

No business is immune from getting the human experience right. Indeed, it could be argued that low-cost challenger brands (like Capitec) succeed as a result of getting the experience right, not just because they cut the costs for their customers. In fact, the opportunity to disrupt is generally created by incumbents losing track of the human experience.

Given the layers of nuance in human experience – as we see in restaurants – it’s no surprise that management attention at corporates gets focused on issues that are tangible or easy to work with. However, that doesn’t remove the risks implicit in human experience.

After many years of involvement with the hospitality industry, Oscar Foulkes is working with clients to shape human experience.

Oscar Folks is founder of the Human Experience. 

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