Consumer power has never played a bigger role than now in influencing brand reputation for the food sector businesses. This makes it essential that companies listen to their customers and put standard operating procedures in place to ensure their needs are being met.
As an industry, the food service sector has always been more susceptible than most to word-of-mouth and changes in public perception. A reputation for quality is a hard-earned asset that can take years to cultivate – and can be shattered irreparably in a fraction of that time.
Inevitably, 21st-century ways of working and communicating cause changes to that dynamic, but in this case that is manifesting as a rapid acceleration of the existing trend. In 2018, a bad review is no longer just a single person's opinion, but an idea that can proliferate virally online before you've even heard anything about it.
That means it's more important than ever for food service professionals to make sure they have embedded industry-approved standard operating procedures (SOPs) in every aspect of what they do, and that they are aware of and responsive to essential feedback from their customer base. Only by doing this can businesses keep control of their own brand image, and ensure that consumer power is a force that bolsters their industry standing, rather than undermining it.
Acknowledging the importance of consumer feedback shouldn't be an alien concept for food service companies, who have long relied upon reviews, recommendations and independent evaluations to build their reputations and grow their businesses.
However, this kind of reputation management has never been more important than it is today. Sites like TripAdvisor have given consumers dedicated channels through which to share their positive or negative ratings of specific businesses, while social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have meant that much of that feedback is instantly public. A damning review or unflattering photo of your food or premises is something that can't be undone, and can bring your business to global attention of the worst kind.
This is compounded by the fact that consumers now expect food outlets to be proactively accountable for their own reputation to a greater degree than ever before. A recent Food Standards Agency survey revealed that 68 per cent of consumers will make a decision about where they eat based on the business's food hygiene rating – and that 59 per cent would assume an outlet that does not display its rating has poor hygiene.
With the acceleration of these trends in mind, it's vital that food service professionals are taking a good look at their SOPs and making sure they are up to the standards that consumers and industry regulators expect.
Examples of key focus areas for your SOPs include:
It’s also important to remember that your SOPs should not necessarily be set in stone. While certain food safety principles are universal, new tools and best practice standards are always emerging as methodologies improve, so be flexible enough to update your procedures if they're at risk of falling out of date.
Additionally, SOPs are an area in which consumer feedback ought to be harnessed positively. That means responding proactively to any concerns or queries raised by your customers, taking their opinions seriously, and putting a plan of action in place when change is needed to meet the high standards that your client base expects of you.
Developing and implementing the right standards in response to consumer expectations should be taken as a given for any food service organisation, but that doesn't mean it's an easy or simple thing to achieve. Without creating a culture of excellence that has the complete buy-in of all members of staff, even the best-considered SOPs will amount to little more than lip service – and your customers will notice.
This is why it's essential to invest properly in a robust training strategy, providing all employees with access to learning and development tools that can get them up to speed on industry-standard operating processes, making sure that everyone within the organisation has taken responsibility for their own role in keeping the kitchens clean and producing high-quality food.
Modern e-learning courses can make it easier for businesses to provide staff with access to high-quality teaching materials that they can work through in their own time, with learning management systems helping to monitor the progress of every employee and ensure that the right standards are being met. Many of these courses also provide learners with access to officially recognised certification upon successful completion, giving businesses the kind of tangible proof of quality standards that regulators and consumers are looking for.
Finally, it's vital to remember that any investment in training cannot be a one-off investment; SOPs change and evolve in line with changing regulations, new innovations and customer feedback, and so your training strategy should be flexible enough to reflect that. Only by getting serious about training can you make sure that your brand reputation remains an asset – rather than an obstacle – to the continued success of your business.
Contact Virtual College today to discuss how we can help deliver your training programme or assist with your learning and development strategy here. With over 20 years’ experience in the industry and over 3 million learners, we are passionate about developing content and delivering training methodologies that deliver real impact. We are not about the brand, we are about the project!