This morning I had an odd encounter. I ventured into Limerick City for the first time in over 2 months. As I approached a store, the shop assistant whom I recognised from previous visits, came towards the door from the opposite direction and asked me to stand aside as she unlocked it. Simple request and I was happy to oblige, as I too wanted to adhere to social distancing rules. Her customer service went downhill from there. Her tone became more aggressive as she ordered me to wait outside while she set up the hatch in the doorway which she would work behind for the day. She looked at me as if I was the virus as if I was posing a risk to her safety. The entire transaction was flooded with scepticism. It was a poor customer experience, and it is one I expect to see more and more in the coming weeks as businesses begin to re-open.
There is still a huge level of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, and it’s understandable that staff are going to be anxious when taking the leap of faith back into the workplace. For the last few months, we have been told to social distance and limit contact with one another to avoid catching and spreading the virus. In fact, this message is still being preached today. Yet as I walked around Limerick City today, I saw that an array of non-essential stores had reopened. It’s safe to assume that as employers look to re-open their stores, they are requesting non-essential staff to return back to work, back to dealing with the general public. The anxiety that we’ve built up over the last few months while altering and minimalising our routines will not vanish overnight, and no amount of protective barriers will neutralise this. There will be anxiety among employees while dealing with the public. Customers may not be met by the same friendly and approachable staff they were once acquainted with. This is what I saw today and led me to wonder.
How will the anxiety of employees returning back to work affect existing relationships between the store and it’s customers?
It would be crazy to expect things to go back to normal now that stores are beginning to re-open. They won’t! Shopping experiences will be very different. People will have to stand in longer more spread-out lines, people may be required to wear masks or gloves, or stand outside as the store assistant gather their requested items. The physical experience will be totally different. But what about the emotional experience? Will this be the same? Will staff treat customers in the same manner as they had pre-COVID-19? Will the relationships between a store and it’s customers remain the same, or will the staff now look at customers as if they pose a potential danger?
It is important to get the economy back up and running as soon as it is safe to do so. For this to happen safety measure must be implemented and adhered to. Safety measures are not just a way of avoiding the spread of the virus, they are a way for staff to feel mentally at ease while performing their duties. They are a way of protecting the relationships that staff have with their customers. For physical stores, store assistants are the people who engage with customers, develop relationships and make the sales. If these store assistants don’t feel safe in their working environment this will show in their customer service, as I experienced today. This may not only drive the customer away but may also damage the reputation of the store.
Customer loyalty may have dwindled over the last few months. Shop closures have moved many customers online, where a better, cheaper alternative product is just a click away. This may be the new norm for these customers. However, if they make their way back to local stores, it is now more important than ever for business owners to prioritise customer service. Preferential treatment has been seen as the most effective way at retaining customers, thus each customer should feel that they are being valued and prioritised by staff members.[i] This can only occur if the staff feel that they are in a safe environment to do perform their duties.
I believe that there is a general acceptance and understanding of social distancing and safety measures in stores. However, I don’t believe that poor customer service, unresolved conflicts or scepticism will be accepted. Customers may have sampled other vendors during lockdown and a negative customer experience may divert them back to those vendors.
I would suggest that business owners implement their safety measures while prioritising customer service. They should look at safety as more than just physical entities such as screens and yellow tape, they should look at their safety processes which best facilitate their staff at providing customer service. Lastly, I would suggest that staff should be encouraged to speak up about eventualities where they feel vulnerable while engaging with customers. Take an hour, to experience the store from the customer’s point of view. See how the safety measures are used and observe the actions of the staff while they engage with customers.
To conclude, I would like to say that everything mentioned above is addressed towards non-essential businesses who deal with the public in a face-to-face manner, specifically small business owners. Essential businesses such as pharmacies, supermarkets etc who have been remained open may not have experienced the same relationship gaps as those who have closed. Their staff have been rightly admired for their commitment to providing the public with essential items, thus the customer relationships towards these businesses and their staff may have become stronger. Also, I recognise and commend the actions of many businesses who have altered to or implemented an online business model to keep them moving over the last few months. This has not been possible for many small businesses and this article is primarily addressed to those who have had to put a pause on their activity.
[i] Huang, M. (2015). The influence of relationship marketing investments on customer gratitude in retailing. Journal of Business Research, 68(6), pp.1318-1323.
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