As the pandemic rages and wanes and rages again, most Americans are under a level of stress and anxiety which is completely foreign to anything they have ever experienced. Originally, I was optimistic that lock-down and social distancing practices could flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. As the US faces newly emerging hot spots, the short-term future feels less bright and manageable. Living in limbo is taking its toll on all of us. I’ve noticed a decline in my typical patience and tolerance levels and imagine that most would agree they, like me, are feeling a bit more on edge lately.
Living in a constant state of anxiety and stress negatively impacts our mental health. It also colors our perception of the world and our interactions with individuals in unforeseen ways. Last week, ENGINE Insights’ ongoing COVID-19 Pulse survey uncovered significant declines in three key aspects of US customer experience. Compared to one month ago, significantly fewer US consumers report experiences that meet or exceed their expectations related to store cleanliness, overall associate helpfulness and associate friendliness.
As I reviewed these results, I was reminded of a shopping experience in late May. Lockdown and complete social distancing had already begun to chip away at my family’s overall happiness and mental well-being. To help redirect emotions and break up the monotony, we decided to add a few new feathered friends to our home. So, one Sunday afternoon we took a trip to the local pet store. This familiar experience came with the new twist. I was taking my kids into a public place for the first time in months, wearing face masks and interacting with strangers was stressful on a level I that I could not have anticipated and did not expect.
According to my expectations, our visit to the pet store should have taken about 30 minutes. I planned our route to the small animal area, told the girls that they needed to pick quickly and then after locating an associate, we’d be on our way home. Well the process took just over an hour. My daughters did their part and quickly selected a finch and canary as their own personal pets. I found an associate and informed her that we were ready. She was polite and let us know that we were next in line.
As we waited patiently for, no exaggeration, 30 minutes, I watched our associate have a very taxing experience helping a family of three select a reptile. The family failed to keep a six-foot distance from the young associate, did not wear masks and their child tried to touch the associate several times without parental correction or intervention.
When our turn came, the associate was visibly shaken and anxious. She apologized for our long wait and expressed her frustration and discomfort with the family she eventually sent home with a new reptile. I did my best to console her and made sure we kept our distance.
As I see reports of employee helpfulness and friendliness decline, I can understand how we may have gotten here. It makes sense to me that associates may be responding in less friendly or helpful ways as they continue to work under more stressful than normal circumstances. I imagine that they are battling their own fears and anxiety about being at work, potentially being exposed to COVID-19 and maintaining a living while being faced with situations that make them feel threatened or uncomfortable. A common response is to avoid those situations. So, associates are less likely to seek out customers to assist and appear less friendly when doing so as a result of the negative emotional response this creates.
Reflecting on the US consumer’s impression of declining experience with store cleanliness, two theories come to mind.
Theory #1: Cleaning is getting lax due to improving conditions in some areas. The perception that there is less risk of disease transmission may make additional COVID-19 cleaning practices and frequency seem less necessary.
Theory #2: US consumer expectations for overall store cleanliness are not the same as they were pre-COVID-19 and may continue to become more or less sensitive as the number of cases increases or decreases. Our expectation of cleanliness, and by extension safety, have become much more stringent in part due to the prolonged heightened anxiety we continue to experience as the pandemic rages on without a known or forecasted end point.
So, what now?
What can business owners and consumers do to improve employee and customer experience to meet current expectations of cleanliness, helpfulness and friendliness while maintaining performance on other aspects of customer experience?
Business Owners, Managers and Executives
Obtain customer feedback
In order to improve, you need to know what customers think of their experience. Learning what is going well and what aspects need additional focus will help you to build stronger relationships with your customers, fostering loyalty and trust that will positively impact you and your patrons.
During this time of rapid change and never before seen perceptual fluidity, ENGINE recommends soliciting feedback after each transaction. If your business is not gathering customer feedback, there are many affordable methods available to help you obtain this critical information quickly and effectively.
Provide a supportive empathetic and responsive environment for employees
Owners, managers and associates need to band together. Here are a few suggestions to foster a positive, supportive working environment:
- Hold team meetings at the start of each shift. Allow employees to freely express their emotions. Understand the emotional ride they are experiencing while at work, interacting with customers, co-workers and their overall response to present working conditions.
- Provide an anonymous suggestion box or email box for those who do not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts publicly.
- Take action to improve less than ideal conditions, and reduce employee anxiety and overall stress. Communicate the changes that are made in response and ask about the impact to ensure the changes are producing the intended affect.
- If you are not already, begin consistently measuring employee experience. Ask your employees for the same feedback you solicit from customers and analyze the results with an eye to themes and a depth of understanding. Identifying commonalities in positive and negative performance along your customer journey and employee interactions will benefit customer loyalty, employee morale and your bottom line.
ENGINE has a wealth of experience creating and conducting voice of employee programs. We are happy to design a program that helps your organization care for your employees and customers during this time of uncertainty quickly and cost-effectively.
Consumers, Business Owners, Managers, Executives and Employees
Appreciate that everyone is fighting a private battle each day. Our emotions are running deep and strong. Life in limbo is getting old. Stress and anxiety are experienced far more regularly than ever before. Even though we can’t see it through the masks, be the reason that someone smiles today or experiences a sigh of relief.
When you are the customer, say thanks to the person who cleans the carts at your grocery store. Move back from a stock person. Wait patiently as another customer is making a selection before passing. Keep your distance when asking for help from an associate.
When you are the associate, notice a shopper who looks in need and offer assistance. Other customers may be less likely to offer a hand in these times and customers may be unsure about asking for help. Feel empowered to ask a customer to maintain appropriate distance. Thank customers for their patience and although they won’t see it, smile. It will help your mood and reduce overall stress. Talk to your manager about potential issues with cleanliness, overall helpfulness and friendliness. Make note of ways associates and customers can improve the overall shopping experience and share these thoughts.
As an owner, manager or corporate executive, be there for your employees and customers. Acknowledge their unique struggles and make being in your store or place of employment as supportive and calming as possible. Listen to concerns. Take action and frequently communicate the results of these actions.
Experience is declining, but it is not too late to make a difference. If everyone does their part, we can reverse the trend. Appreciate the power of your own actions. Remember that your actions can positively or negatively impact another and choose kindness. In my personal experience, it leads to more satisfying, helpful and friendly interactions with others.