Staff wearing masks. Bottles of hand sanitiser placed on each counter. Temperature guns aimed at your forehead.
These are some of the measures companies have taken to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a laudable effort by companies to ensure that public health is prioritised. But many are still trying to figure out the finer aspects of customer experience – with their frontline staff as guinea pigs.
In an account by Amanda Mull of The Atlantic, she states that at her local coffee place, the milks, sugars, and disposable lids had been moved behind the counter. But the barista was nervous, because orders would take longer to dole out, and every request for “just a little sugar” or a particular type of milk had the potential to go wrong. He hoped people would be patient, but the rush had yet to come.
At her neighbourhood grocery, people were starting to get irritated that the store had run out of disinfectant wipes – like every other store in the city. The women running the checkout lines wore gloves, spraying down conveyor belts and credit-card keypads as thoroughly as they could before the next customer piled toilet paper and canned food into their lanes.
For customers, such measures may be unnerving, but many are understanding and will forgive the staff – as long as the underlying customer experience does not change. Every employee must provide the same level of customer service, regardless of the situation. But companies must allow some flexibility in letting employees manage the COVID-19 outbreak, with the overriding concern of public health and safety.
But as panic-buying, disaster-prepping customers descend on supermarkets around the globe, front-line staff can be quickly overwhelmed. Undertrained and unprepared for such a response, hourly workers and customer service agents are now the de facto frontline of pandemic response. Though supermarkets are well-prepared for such surges, e.g. at festive periods, these are known well ahead of time. The COVID-19 outbreak caught everyone unaware, and now everyone is paying the price in CX – from customers to employees and harried retail CEOs.
Indonesian retail and shopping centre associations were urging consumer restraint, while UK retailers have urged shoppers not to buy more than they need, and to be considerate in their shopping. Panic shopping and buying helps no one, and it leaves the elderly and vulnerable in society with no supplies – not to mention that crowding in supermarkets provides the perfect breeding ground for COVID-19.
Another class of customer service workers that are under immense pressure are those employed by airline call centres. Amidst tightened travel restrictions, cancelled events and business travel, customers have flooded airline phone lines en masse. To get an idea of how bad the situation is, take a look at any major airline’s Facebook page – you will see hundreds of comments asking for assistance and refunds on every post.
Already in a thankless role, customer service agents are being treated as virtual punching bags by angry customers who have already tried every other tool that doesn’t require a phone call. Some customers have been trying to call for days, and when they finally get through, they won’t be happy. Such stress has been linked to an array of physical and mental-health problems, including depression and high blood pressure.
While such chaos is unavoidable, we as customers need to do our part to ensure our own customer experience is as seamless as possible, given the circumstances. Often, frontline staff themselves are as clueless as we are – but they’re trying to do their best. Put yourselves in their shoes, and understand why this is happening. No one saw COVID-19 coming, but we can see our kindness to the people trying to give us the best customer experience possible – regardless of viruses, or otherwise.