Proceed With Caution: Essential Advice for Non-Essential Business

June 19, 202012min

This week many retail businesses are starting to reopen. Shops that were considered non-essential during the initial phases of lockdown are preparing to throw their doors open again in a new era for customer experience.

It’s been 89 days since lockdown was first announced on the 23rd of March, and people were told to work from home where they could. So, the big question is, how much can 89 days change how our customers think, feel and shop, and how can we meet their expectations in this new world?

No doubt you’ve heard about the perspex screens, the one-in / one-out policies and the closure of fitting rooms to try and ensure that both customers and staff are kept as safe as possible. There are plenty of health and safety guidelines available, and businesses offering to help you get your premises up to code popping up daily.

It is of course crucial that any retail business re-opening follows any health and safety measures as issued by the government, but there are plenty of articles out there that deal with that side of things. This is a different sort of Covid related article, and here’s why:

Our customers have just undergone a massive change. It has been thrust upon them with little warning, with no consultation and they have had limited control on what their day to day life has looked like since March. That has been scary, but it’s not the end of the story.

Dr. Larry Richard, a leading expert in the psychology of behaviour when it comes to change management, believes that when dealing with change, there are essentially two types, episodic and continuous. We are able to deal with episodic change easily, a loud noise might distract us, or startle us, but we move on quickly and soon forget about the noise. Continuous change, however, such as the state of change we have been experiencing since March, has the potential to be far more unsettling.

Continuous change is relentless and far more unpredictable. It puts us in a constant state of alert. We remain “off balance” much of the time. Since it has no end point, we’re never fully able to relinquish all of our refocused attention.” – Dr. Larry Richard

Our customers could be suffering from the effects of living in a state of continuous, unpredictable change with no clear end in sight. So, doesn’t it make sense to try to understand what kind of impact that might have had on them, how to help support them through this period and ultimately how to adapt our businesses to their needs?

Change of this nature – unrelenting, sudden, and continuous – can trigger our threat response, setting off anxiety and a heightened sense of constantly being on alert. Alongside the increased anxiety, our customers may:

  • Suffer from mood swings and emotional instability
  • Feel an increase in negative emotions such as irritability, distractibility, sadness, worry, agitation or passivity
  • Have a lower attention span
  • Experience lower levels of trust, and increased cynicism
  • May feel disconnected from others (this is especially true in the current climate)

So, what can you do to help your customers, aside from the more obvious safety measures being put in place?

Look after your staff

Looking after your staff should always be no.1 on your list of priorities.

Staff who feel cared for, and genuinely looked after, will always be happier, more dedicated and more likely to enjoy their work. This impacts your customers.

This isn’t new advice, but what might be new are the measures you may need to take to make your team feel safe and cared for. Ensure they have everything they need to keep them, and their families as safe as possible during their return to work. Ask them what would help them feel safer and ensure you really take this chance to listen and understand their concerns about returning. Don’t just assume that everyone will be happy to get back to work now that the government advice has changed.

It’s the right way to treat your team, but now we know it’s also something that’s important to your consumers.

Ninety-one percent of UK consumers who took part in the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 felt “brands must do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and their suppliers, even if it means suffering big financial losses until the pandemic ends”

Crucially, the same study also reported that 71 percent of consumers felt that if they saw brands placing profit ahead of people those brands would lose their trust forever.

Be consistent where you possibly can

Ease the impact of all the change where you can by clinging to the things you can be consistent on. If it’s possible:

  • Keep your opening hours the same
  • Keep your usual people on the tills – a familiar face will go a long way to creating a sense of normality and trust
  • Where you can, keep your stock in the same place as normal and don’t make the route around the shop too convoluted
  • If you need to put some stock away to make more room for customers to move around in a socially distanced way, try to anticipate customer needs and have high sales items readily available, clean and ready to replace

Don’t become so distracted by the required changes dictated by government guidelines that you forget your core messages, your core values, and how you communicate with your customers.

Make things clear

Don’t assume that your customers have read the social distancing guidance that you have, or that they will instinctively understand any new ways of moving around your premises.

You will have thought out your opening, and planned a safe route for shoppers to follow. Make sure there are signs available on entry and at every potential point of confusion. Be careful not to remove the human element though, a friendly and reassuring face to help explain to any shoppers what to do on entry is a great way to ensure your returning customers feel more at ease. Don’t forget, it’s a nerve-wracking experience going shopping for the first time since lockdown, and many shoppers will be hesitant, unsure and look to you and your staff for clarification on the new rules.

Another element to consider is how you ask your frontline staff to handle anyone who has misunderstood the new ways of shopping. It might be scary for them if someone steps too close, or picks something up they shouldn’t, but the chances are your customer has simply forgotten, become distracted and slipped back into a lifetime of habit and if your team can politely and firmly but in a friendly way just remind them of the new rules it will help everyone feel safer. Empathy, as always, is key here.

Be kind – you could be the best part of someone’s day

With the heightened level of anxiety and new guidelines for how to go shopping, your customers may not know what to expect.

Showing kindness is a great way to help your customers feel more comfortable and to ensure that their first shopping experience with you cements their brand loyalty.

If you can, be flexible with explaining how things work, extending returns deadlines, allowing vouchers that expired during the lockdown period to still be used. If someone can’t make it to the shop, think outside of the box – could you send them photos of a product, or give them advice over the telephone instead?

Look for ways to add value and be prepared for a little light-hearted conversation from your customers – you might be the first person they’ve had a chance to speak to face-to-face for three months. You could change their whole day by showing some kindness.

Prep your team for the potential of complaints

If we accept that our customers may feel more irritable, experience increased cynicism and generally be experiencing a permanent state of anxiety, it stands to reason that this could materialise in more customer concerns being raised. If this does happen, make sure your team understand the emotional backdrop that your customers might be experiencing, and practise empathy before responding to try to offer a helpful resolution.

We are all in this together, and for the first time in memorable history, almost all staff and customers have something major in common. Build on that to help fuel more understanding customer interactions.


Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown is founder and Lead Consultant at Think Wow Limited, a training and consulting service offering Customer Experience strategy with a difference. Rebecca is a judge at the 2020 Complaint Handling Awards.




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