Updated: Jan 12, 2021
2020 was a rough year for most everyone, and I want to lead off by thanking all of you who stood on the front lines to keep the world moving. I am grateful to healthcare workers, front line retail employees, restaurant teams, and delivery services.
People found their health affected, careers gone, and businesses closed - through no fault of their own. We all know those who have been challenged in unimaginable ways and who are charting new courses.
IT IS TIME TO GET OFF THE MAT.
IT IS TIME TO RISE.
IT IS TIME FOR A COMEBACK.
But let's start by digging in on what is relevant and actionable. If I read one more article that declares with a near "eureka" moment that "customer experience will matter more than ever," I'm taking my New Normal and going home.
Of course customer experience is going to matter more than ever. And guess what, if you read last year's articles about CX, you'll find that it mattered more than ever before in 2018 and 2019, too.
But what does that mean? Strategies are nothing without the context to execute them on a daily basis, so let's talk about what will matter to customers when you are actively engaging with them - either in person or virtually.
The challenge is to remain agile and open to change, while keeping the best parts of your customer experience rolling along. This will mean prioritizing adaptability and problem solving in both leaders and front line team members. This will become the skill that most sets apart those who are successful and those who flounder.
As I write this, I'm reminded of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Jackson who challenged me to take philosophy in college because "it will teach you to think, Tony."
Couple adaptability with resilience, and you'll be poised to move quickly as the marketplace evolves.
Health and Safety Measures Must Be In Place, Front and Center, and Have Customer Facing Visibility
What defines comfort for your customers (and your team)? What will it take to make your customers feel confident that you are doing all you can to make sure they are safe and protected?
I was watching the news reports of the first U.S. commercial flight of the 737 Max since it was grounded, and the American Airlines pilot had the right idea. Knowing that everyone on board was likely a bit worried, he came on the intercom and said "I have the utmost confidence in the safety of this aircraft. As a matter of fact, my wife is onboard."
That seemed to make everyone on the Miami to New York flight much more comfortable and was a nice piece of service from the pilot.
How will you do the same for your customers, guests, and consumers? It will likely be a combination of communication, action, and PR. You will not only need to have processes in place, but you'll need to demonstrate them in real time. Your cleaning and safety cannot be "behind the scenes" operations any more - people want to see what you are doing.
A great example of this is likely at your local grocery store - here in the Orlando area, Publix is actively sanitizing carts in the front of the store for all to see. They could easily do this in the back areas of the store, but it inspires confidence when shoppers can see that process live.
Be Intentional About How You Bring Your Teams Back To Work
There is no doubt that the face of work is changed forever. There is no putting the ketchup back in the bottle and we must all embrace the fact that remote work, well, works. There are some careers that have been too-long tethered to a location - and that presents economic freedom for organizations and logistical freedom for employees. But let's talk about what that means in reality. I've been on all sides of this equation. I have been a remote worker when I was a full time CXO and I have also led remote, dispersed teams.
Remote employees love the freedom, but they get lonely and bored. Leaders love the financial relief of not having to fund a physical workplace, but worry that team members aren't putting in enough productive hours. And yes, we have all read the studies but I promise you there are still a large percentage of executives that question how work-from-home employees fill their days.
Before anything else, if you plan to welcome your teams back to a workplace, then you have to begin by making them feel safe. This also goes for businesses that are opening/reopening in fields that really can't be remote, such as retail and restaurants. You have to be sure that they understand what safety precautions are being taken and why they matter. You also should understand that no matter what you do there will be trepidation, so be understanding and empathetic.
When you do reopen your locations, take advantage of the things that were most neglected during work from home. My teams always seemed to miss the casual interactions that spurred on creativity and collaboration. Spoiler alert: those were never the planned meetings, but rather those "run-into-you-in-the-hallway-moments" that so often move projects along.
On the other side of the coin, if you are staying remote you must solve the problem of connection. Zoom meetings are a nice stand in, but you have to account for the casual connection conundrum if you are to sustain remote work and creativity. You may consider the blended model, where team members split time between remote and on site work, and that may help balance your equation.
Customers Demand To Be More Than Transactions
Guests and customers have embraced personalization and a "just-for-me" feel when it comes to service. Customers were already demanding service that made them feel like individuals and the pandemic has driven this home even further. Customers expect a bit more patience, latitude, and empathy as they engage with brands and businesses.
This will be relevant in all service channels - so be sure that your call centers and virtual chat teams are engaging in these behaviors as well.
Customers want to be understood and to do that you have to take time to analyze their needs, wins, and journeys. This will require looking at their experience from their point of view and also ensuring that many voices are heard when it comes to compiling their experiences.
You can't get a true flavor of what it means to be a customer in your business without talking to both your customer base and those who serve them directly. The impactful part about engaging these two stakeholders is that you can also follow up with potential solutions to any friction points you uncover.
The Forgiveness Curve Has Flattened
When the pandemic hit, there was a general sense of patience from customers early on as call centers were overwhelmed and organizations began to embrace work from home. Restaurants were given a pass for slimmed down menus and longer waits due to fewer tables. That has evaporated. Customers won't care at all that you have a remote work force - they will want a call center experience that is is smooth and connected to solving their problems.
I remember when restaurants and amusement parks started to reopen after the initial pandemic closures. At first, my family was just happy to get out and enjoy a meal that wasn't out of a plastic take out carton. The service was slow and it was weird wearing a mask in public - but we were grateful to see some sense of perceived normalcy reemerge.
It didn't take long for that to disappear and to come to expect the same quality we were accustomed to pre-pandemic.
The same thing will happen as the vaccine helps the world return to something more familiar. You will find that your customers will be looking for a return to outstanding quality, service, and innovation - not just getting the doors open. You will also find that placing a sign in your business or a message on your call center menu warning of longer wat times due to staffing shortages is not a sustainable way to engender customer loyalty. It's fine as a short term courtesy, but has now become "experience noise" that no one hears or cares about.
Some businesses have become satisfied with maintaining operations and delivering the basics of service - and those organizations will be vulnerable to surprise as new competitors pop up.
Customers Will Want to Keep What They Came to Love
Contactless, self-service, telehealth, and eliminated penalties were some of the more positive CX trends that came from the Covid-19 pandemic. These will be sticking around in the future, so organizations must ensure they are on track.
Contactless technology - while already available in the market place - really seemed like a novelty rather than a viable service channel. But now NFC (Near Field Communication) technology is price of entry. This increasingly available technology has come to make everything from payment to opening your hotel room door much easier. This tech was gaining momentum before the pandemic, but it has become commonplace since the outbreak.
Customers have continued to double down on online shopping and pick up, which will likely continue to grow into 2021. Customers realized that curb side pick up, takeout, and delivery were not only safer, but easier over the last 8 months, which means even new organizations will need to be sure that these channels are a part of their business plan.
Customers were quick to adapt to self service and virtual assistance. Successful organizations found ways to take pressure off of their call centers by allowing customers to find answers with well structured online help centers. The most successful businesses made it easy to find the answers and still made it possible for customers to reach out for live support when needed. Telehealth made great strides with their technology as well - which is meaningful for the future of patient experience. The platforms were in need of investment and updating - and after a rough start up during the pandemic, they have found solid footing in the marketplace.
Finally, customers have had their fill of penalties and rules. Many in the travel business had to waive change and cancellation fees in the early days of coronavirus - and many have made those changes permanent. This should be a lesson to the movie business, who believe they can change the viewing patterns of public for 2021. Warner Brothers is releasing their movies for this year simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max. Disney has transitioned much of their efforts into serial content for Disney+. They may find that this will be very difficult to roll back to the pre-covid-19 model in 2022.
Customers become used to things very quickly.
The message for 2021 is clear.
There is a sense of hope and enthusiasm that always comes with the new year, and this year more than most. A combination of the vaccine roll out and a desire to turn the page on a tough year has imbued the world with a spirit of optimism.
It will not be like flipping a light switch, but there is tremendous opportunity to deliver hospitality, positivity, and quality to a marketplace that is hungry for the future.
What better way than to keep your customers at the center of everything you do.
Happy New Year!
Now is a great time to complete your customer journey mapping activities to really understand your guest/customer/consumer point of view.
Double down on selection and training activities that teach adaptability.
Take a moment to review your customer experience strategies and be sure that your entire team understands how they can support your customers.
Tony Johnson, CCXP
Improve Your Customer Service with my Book: TOGETHER WE SERVE: Four Proven Strategies to Create Winning Experiences for Your Guests and Your Team Click to Purchase on Amazon.com
Tony Johnson is an award winning speaker and author on the topics of sales growth, customer experience, and leadership. Tony speaks to thousands annually and has been featured on ABC News and Fox News. He is available for business planning, motivational keynotes, leadership workshops, and employee service skills training.
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