For many business owners, getting out of lockdown isn’t just a priority, it's a life or death requirement. The federal government has by and large turned over much of this to states, counties and cities and many of these have implemented a plan and are working in that direction. But what will that look like for you, the business owner? How will a slow launch impact your business in the long run… much depends on how it affects your customers in the short.
It is safe to say that customers are reaching a breaking point. Our nature is to interact with others. It is healthy. When we turn on the TV we see COVID. When we open social media… COVID. COVID shows in the empty parking lots of strip malls, it shows in the signs and requirements of the few businesses that have been open. COVID is the mask, the sanitizer, and the mapped out path. It is boat less lakes and empty beaches. COVID is everywhere… people are tired of hearing about and fearing COVID-19.
But alas, it’s time to slowly begin to open again. Like every opportunity, as a smart business owner you should be looking for the edge... and giving your customers a great experience, free of reminders of fear or frustrations while maintaining a safe environment, may well be your ticket to a solid long run. In an article in Forbes, brick-and-mortar must upgrade the store experience and we couldn't agree more.. Let’s look at a few considerations and ways that you can make this happen.
1- Employee attitude
Everyone is nervous. Nobody knows how to act. The result is clinical. Have you ever been in a big government building and its totally quiet. It’s as if you’re in a library and you feel like you should whisper when it is clearly not required. That is the vibe in most retail and service outlets today. I questioned a customer service clerk in a local store about how it was working with the customers now. The response was a clear indication of a potentially devastating problem. “ I hate talking to customers now. I worry that every one of them has the sickness.” That's right, customer service saying I hate talking to customers.
The mindset that you must have, and the one which you must be conveyed and instilled in your employees, is that your number one goal is to remain safe without undermining your customers experience. It is time well spent to sit down with your employees and explain this goal to them. Review with them facts on the risks. Discuss how you plan on keeping them safe and make them comfortable in their new work environment. Ask them if there is anything that still causes them fear. Then, talk about the customer’s needs. Explain to them the need for a friendly experience and get their input. There is a strange phenomenon in that people have entered a more clinical mindset. They talk less, they laugh less, there is less eye contact. It is as if we all have cooties… we don't. Your staff will need to go farther to make people feel comfortable. Customer may not be able to see a smile, but they can hear it. They can hear a chuckle. They can see your body language.
There is nothing as powerful and welcoming as a genuine smile. One of the biggest challenges you face as you reopen is giving your customers personal attention and a caring attitude despite the need for barriers. Masks block the strongest no-verbal communication signals we can give to each other. They also obviously muffle the verbal. The requirements on masks vary from city to city. Many places leave it up to the individual. Obviously, allowing your staff to wear masks is necessary. Requiring it though may be worth considering. Are there other, equally effective ways to keep everyone safe without the reminder of the pandemic and the look of a hospital? Plexiglass barriers can be equally effective. Can you adjust how your staff interacts with your customers so that they can remain safe and your customers can still see a smile? Can masks be used in some areas but not necessary required in all?
If a mask is necessary then how can you get your employees smiling attitude to shine through it. After reviewing the environment with one client and discussing this problem one employee, who worked in a particular area that had to wear masks, drew a big smile on the mask. Even that made a tremendous difference and it invites people to talk and maybe laugh about the situation. It didn't take a full day before every employee painted on a smile. We had a discussion with a restaurant owner who then asked us to talk to their staff about the challenge. One server changed her greeting and told patrons that she is smiling at them under her mask. Like a visable smile, the greeting alone changed the atmosphere. When we smile it changes our body language and voice inflections. People can pick up on this.
I went into a local tanning salon and saw that the person behind the check in desk was also behind a plexiglass barrier and she had a mask on. Talk about an “in your face” reminder and a giant negative. She then asked me about my health via several questions… all of which were hindered by the muffling mask and noise blocking shield. What started as a desire for normalcy turned into a frustrating reminder and a bad experience.
Use common sense and your imagination. Remember, the goal is to keep people safe AND provide a good customer experience. Ask yourself common sense questions like (do I need a mask AND a plexiglass barrier?) and find out facts.
3- Directing traffic in your store.
The social distancing measure is 6 feet. So many stores have taped X on the floor that directs people as to where they should stand in line that what the mark on the floor means has already become second nature. Also second nature is the meaning of an X. It is negative, It means no. It brings a general negative feel to the experience. It is also unnecessary. Use a positive mark. Like a smiley face sticker or even an advertisement.
Many stores are trying to eliminate people crossing back and forth in opposite directions. But nobody likes to be herded like cattle. Having an “In” door and an “Out” door is not atypical. Lowes for example has been doing it for years. Pick up some more permanent enter/exit only signs. Once in the store, use common and fitting barriers like product shelving and furniture to direct traffic as opposed to floor tape or caution tape. The results are the same without the negative undertones. If the checkout counter allows people to stand too close. Consider modifying it or adding a table in front of it. Push the credit card reader farther away from the cashier.
4- Seating and gathering places
Again, reminders of a problem do not create a positive experience. You can manage the risk without undermining the experience. For restaurants, simply rearranging your seating may be possible. Removing tables that cannot be used looks better than caution tape and x’s. Having non marked tables that your staff knows not to seat in is better, but having tables not there at all ensures safety and shows a full house when all tables are filled. Put them in a storage unit until things change.
5- Keeping your staff safe
Again, talk to your staff about their concerns and have an open door policy. It is important for you to understand that it does not matter if the threat is real or perceived, the fear is real. If a staffer has a fear, address and try to eliminate it with conversation or action. It may even be that a particular person has the option of staying home. Bring in temporary help to replace them if necessary and make long term decisions about the results later.
There is a lot of concern about opening up. You may be worried about your health and the health of your staff. You may be concerned that it won’t be soon enough. Regardless, the very best thing you can do is attack on the offensive. Lean forward on this situation. You can stand out from your competition. You can have an impact on your customer while maintaining safety for them, yourself and your staff but you must provide a positive experience or you can plan on not seeing your customers when more choices open up.
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