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Customer Experience in the Time of COVID-19

Customer service, as most folks who have worked with me, shopped with me, or even dined with me, is everything. The way employees choose to treat you when you make the decision to spend your money at their business can make or break the experience...and their choice whether to return.

During COVID-19, this is all amplified...exponentially.

Wearing a mask, our expressions are pretty much limited to staring, blinking, squinting, and eyebrow raising, and because of that, greeting people with a few kind words (or even a wave) is key to making sure those customers know that you care about their business - and about their well being. We have to make a concerted effort to communicate with others because smiling is no longer there. It sucks that we aren't seeing smiles, but could this be so terrible to have to make a greater effort?

As the pandemic has progressed, one thing has become clear when I've needed to go into retail environments:

The Service Sucks.

As the wife of an essential worker who goes into grocery store every day to bring home the bacon (yeah, bad joke, he's a butcher) as well as make sure everyone else can eat, I've shared with him about my perspective as a customer, not only in his store but in other grocers, retailers and restaurants. Having worked for 7 years in retail myself at the onset of my career, I know that the negative stuff I'm seeing has nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with poor leadership.

The verdicts?

* Restaurants by far are the winners when it comes to customer service. Maybe it's because so many are hanging on by a string, but we've had very few experiences since the pandemic began where the staff aren't going above and beyond to be helpful, to let us know they appreciate our business, and (during outdoor dining) to get us in and out quickly. Obviously the latter helps them get more customers, but the hustle is appreciated either way.

* Retailers, particularly in grocery, however, are the losers here. While there are some rare exceptions, in my county I've been in multiple stores only to experience the exact same thing...apathy. Where retailers should be stepping it up, instead we are seeing the bare minimum. Employees going through the motions at best, ensuring the environment we go into to buy the food that sustains us is one where we feel even more isolated...even though we are surrounded by others. Most stores are using the pandemic to brag about their safety measures...but then appear to have paid for those in both decreased hazard pay and record low service levels.

As a self-employed individual who has literally not hugged any friends since before March, who has been home 95% of the time and just watched our next door neighbors (like a surrogate aunt/uncle to us) move away last week, along with having to euthanize our dog 2 weeks ago, the few times I get to leave my house and go into a store? I don't want to be ignored when I enter!

Two cases in point that immediately come to mind...

* Walked into the local co-op early one morning when there were literally 2 customers in the whole place. The folks at the register stood there staring out into space. No greetings, waves, etc. Folks in produce and grocery stocking shelves, seemingly refusing to even look up and acknowledge a customer (nor bother to move to allow them to look at products). HOW HARD IS IT TO SAY HELLO? In fact, no one even spoke to me until I got to the checkout line, and then it was only to wave me over. Did anyone say thank you? Nope. Did anyone load my grocery bag? Nope, apparently it was my responsibility to stand at the end of the checkout and reach behind the plexi wall to grab groceries because they couldn't be bothered to even push it down to my end of the line. Since when did it become so darn hard for grocery stores to bag your purchases? This is Customer Service 101 stuff, and when you see middle management on the floor setting the example (introversion is not an acceptable excuse - if you are sharing a space with customers, you say hello, you help them, you don't act like you are doing them a favor by your mere existence), it's disconcerting. I'll tell ya the weirdest thing during my last two trips to this local shop? I had more interactions with fellow customers than actual staff. And it was such a bummer, because I know that one on one, these are nice human beings, but when it comes to customer service? It's clearly not a performance expectation.

* Walked into a large retail grocer the other day... and by the carts was an employee sitting in a chair next to the table with disposable masks, staring at the floor. Where you'd think the store would take advantage of this to have her greet incoming customers at the same time, instead was a sullen older woman who clearly did not want to be there. Again, HOW HARD IS IT TO SAY HELLO? After loading up my basket, I went to self-checkout and the employee assigned to that area wasn't wearing a face mask, just a plastic visor over her face. Forbes Magazine (as has the CDC and other reputable sources) reminds readers about how nearly useless plastic face shields are as a solo form of PPE: "Shields and barriers are not a safe alternative to covering your nose and mouth...Businesses let employees wear shields because they believe that visors block Coronavirus. They don't. The virus is spread by aerosols, which won't necessarily travel in one direction and will spread according to air currents."In addition, those stocking shelves, doing picking for online orders, and management staff had zero interest in making eye contact with customers, much less greeting them as they walked by...nor enforcing the statewide mask mandate when multiple customers walked by with no mask, noses exposed, or similar. The sad thing is on the latter, this is a store that has security staff. (Meanwhile, the aforementioned co-op, with a fraction of the staffing, has an excellent safety focus (no plastic shields accepted without an actual cloth mask underneath, improved ventilation installed) and always enforces the mask mandate - even planning ahead so those uncomfortable with confrontation can ask another staff member to do the enforcement.)

* Sadly, in both stores, the tendency for employees to stand around and chit-chat while customers walk by ignored, sometimes even blocking the aisle so no one can get by, seems to be more and more common. No social distancing, and no quick 'hello' to customers in earshot to ensure that they know they are seen, welcome, and that their staff is walking the talk when it comes to pandemic basics. In Retail Shoppers' 50 Pet Peeves About Retail Employees, two of the top peeves include "They stand in little employee groups ignoring customers" and "They talk to another employee about personal stuff while ringing you up" section. In a pandemic, you STFU when customers are around and make THEM the center of your attention. Period. No excuses.

Over and over again, I have seen these behaviors at a variety of grocery stores, where masked employees seem to be contributing to even worse customer service. Not the ACTUAL masks being the problem, because I believe in science, but the fact that folks who may have already been only so-so at customer service appear to be using masks as a reason to completely turn off all semblance of basic courtesy. As in, "I'm wearing a mask so that means you can't see me and I don't have to talk to you or acknowledge your existence!"

Jeff Mowatt's article, For Openers, reminds businesses that this lack of attention to customers has an impact on sales. And my husband and I agree on this - in fact we won't eat or shop at an establishment where we are ignored by staff. As Mowatt explains,"More important than what you say, is the fact that the visitor is acknowledged — not necessarily served — the moment they enter. One study revealed that 68% of customers who leave do so because they feel like no one cares that they’re there."

Some other reminders for retail staff and leadership:

* You have a job - many don't. Don't forget that. It may suck, but You.Have.A.Job. There are millions who never even got a stimulus check (like us). There are millions who are STILL waiting for archaic unemployment systems to kick in so they can get what's been owed to them for the better part of a year (it took 17 weeks for mine). And there are countless folks who lost their businesses that they spent all of their blood, sweat and tears to build over the years who saw them dissolve, with - thanks to a Republican congress who won't even take up a House-passed bill from August that would provide the support they need - little chance of reviving them. A vaccine won't simply spring a lot of these businesses back to life. They've had to sell their equipment or materials. They've lost their leases. They've had to let go of their employees. They've lost their health insurance and cannot afford COBRA or high-deductible ACA plans.

* Just because they are shopping, or dressed nicely while there, doesn't mean they are well off. Many are struggling, whether they look like it or not. Sometimes we even dress up to go to the grocery store - because that's our only time out of the house! Seriously, I've started pulling out my earrings and putting on my nice (non-work) boots to leave the farm and go into town just because there are only so many days I can go between overalls and leggings in my wardrobe. And dang - why would you make assumptions on someone's financial situation (as if that would be a reason to be a jerk?) based on the fact that they are in your store and look put together?

* You are often the ONLY folks those customers see all day. Imagine if you got out of a 2 week quarantine and finally got to go to the store...only to have staff act like you are invisible! Something I had to remind my husband of early on during the first lockdown was that he GETS to be around people all day. Not all of us do. Many are feeling so trapped that the grocery store is one of the few places they are allowed to go to! As a self-employed individual, I'd get my "people fix" normally by going to a cafe during the day, volunteering, or meeting up with a friend. That's gone, so I talk to my chickens and ducks unless I need to go to the grocery store.

And yes, we know that there are a lot of customers who can be jerks. Maskless a-holes of course and others who think the rules don't apply to them are at the top of the list. Those who show up one minute before the store is closing and thinks it's then okay to browse for 15 minutes while staff wait around for them to finish up so they can lock up and go home. The ones who treat staff like their minions, talking down to them or making unreasonable demands. I could go on but y'all, I know.

I'm also keenly aware of how most retailers stopped hazard pay back in the summer even though COVID-19 figures have exponentially risen since (after all, we are now a one-income family , and how the larger ones are making record profits while employees still don't make a living wage and their CEOs are making millions if not billions.

But even with those gnarly customers and sh*thead executives, you still don't get to use any of that as an excuse to pretend that customers don't exist.

Remember that quote "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”? Multiply this by 100 when you go to a job that involves working with the public.l

The simple act of being nice to others around you can make your own day brighter even in the darkest of circumstances. I've been there in retail when I've experienced a loss and have been grateful to have the opportunity to disappear into my job, put on a happy face and focus on people other than myself for those 8 hours. It can be healing for oneself to show true empathy kindness to others in those small acts that for some, can mean everything.

As the article 10 Facts That Prove Helping Others Is A Key To Achieving Happiness in HuffPost explains, "Having a positive impact on someone else could help you change your own outlook and attitude. Experts say that performing acts of kindness boosts your mood and ultimately makes you more optimistic and positive."

So, managers, what could be so wrong with leading your team to greet everyone that walks in the store with a simple hello? What could be so awful about hiring folks who genuinely LIKE people and want to make their day better? What could be so wrong with, instead of grumbling about how you have to be in this job, remember that you are not waiting months for an unemployment check like millions of others?

What could be so wrong with remembering that you have the opportunity to bring sunlight into someone's otherwise dreary day, that you can by the simple act of acknowledging their existence and expressing your thanks to them for coming in, help them feel like they're not so alone ?

Customer Service during a pandemic? It's kind of a big deal. Embrace it, and you just might feel better yourself...


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