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True story. Last week, a woman walked into a dentist’s office to get a filling replaced. (The order to shelter-in-place had not yet gone into effect, but was imminent.) The woman walked up to the front desk of the dentist’s office and said hello to a receptionist who was wearing both face mask and plastic gloves. The woman proceeded to sign in and then handed the receptionist her driver’s license and dental insurance card. Rather than take it from her, the receptionist grimaced and recoiled, telling the woman “I don’t want that.” She seemed horrified. The receptionist then instructed the woman to take a step back and hold them up so she could see the information on each and typed it into her computer. The receptionist then pushed a clipboard and pen across the counter so that the woman could fill out a patient history. When she was done, the woman was told to leave the clipboard on the counter. While she could not see the receptionist’s face, she sensed the tone of disgust for her perceived violations of social distancing rules. It was not pleasant.
While it is understandable that fear of transmission of any communicable disease should cause essential professionals to be extra careful, there is no doubt that the receptionist also could have handled the situation better. Times are tense and people need to be extra compassionate, caring and considerate. That goes for customers and employees. But just exactly what is expected of employees now? Whether it is a dental office or a restaurant or a mechanic’s shop, customers still want to be treated with professionalism, kindness, respect and care. And employees want to feel safe. So what should companies do to ensure that customers feel welcome and appreciated (while also protecting employees) in the face of the new normal?
1. Communicate new procedures.
If a company has changed how it does patient check-in or delivering of a service or meeting with a customer, then explain the new procedures in advance. “When you arrive, we will be asking you to present your driver’s license and insurance card. In order to lessen the likelihood of transmission of the Coronavirus, customers are asked not to hand their cards to the receptionist. Instead, please hold each document up when asked so that the receptionist may see and take key information from each. This is our way of reducing risk to both you and our staff.”
2. Show customers no fear.
Although it is normal for everyone to feel some fear when coming into contact with customers during this pandemic, the key is not to show it. Customers do not want to be treated as though they are germ incubators. They want to still feel welcome and valued. And these days, they want to feel that everything is going to be okay. Staff must maintain composure and demonstrate professionalism at all times. Staff who are unable to do that should not be allowed to work with the public. The customer, after all, still has the power to take their business elsewhere. And even if a grocery store is the only one stocking toilet paper right now, eventually it won’t be. Customers who have no other choice today and feel slighted will take their business elsewhere as soon as there is another option. As Sam Walton, founder of Walmart once said, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
3. Replace hand shaking with other non-contact gestures of welcome.
Traditionally, when meeting with a customer or client, it would have been normal for an attorney or accountant to greet a client by shaking hands. The days of hand-to-hand contact among professionals is on hold, at least for now. Rather than recoil or rudely rebuff a handshake, a professional approach might be to say “Hey, it is so good to meet you. Let’s air bump or do an air high five.” They will understand. By communicating that hand-shaking has been replaced with some kind of non-touching gesture, it lets the customer know that while the traditional greeting isn’t possible, the intent of warmth and welcome is still there.
4. Greet customers with a smile and a sincere tone of voice.
Smiles and a friendly tone has always been in style. But, in the age of Coronavirus, there is definitely no need to give a pat on the back, hug or otherwise be in a person’s personal space to greet, praise or show someone is welcome. A warm smile and a sincerely stated, “Howdy. It is so good to see you!” or “Hey there. Welcome to our shop. Let me know if there’s anything you need.” is what a customer really needs. In fact, never has the need to communicate clearly and with warmth been more important to customer service. The key is to look and sound genuine. And few people are able to really fake that effectively. So the key is not just look and sound sincere, but actually be authentically cheerful and upbeat. Even if deep down, staff feel fearful and upset, making an effort to be jovial will actually help the employees feel better too.
5. Make and maintain eye contact.
Another way to demonstrate an authentic interest in another person is to make and maintain eye contact. Eye contact is a physical sign of respect that says “I’m listening”… and it can be done even from six feet away. It not only sends a signal to the other person that he/she is being heard, but it’s a pivotal part of the listening process because it allows the listener to pick up on nonverbal cues the other person is sending. This is true during in-person contact as well as on video conferencing meetings. Eye contact communicates that the person is present and “in the moment.”
For instance, if a salesperson was explaining to a customer how a product works and said, “Does that make sense?,” the customer might say “yes”. However, if the salesperson was really paying attention and maintaining eye contact, it would be possible to see a slight look of confusion or lack of clarity on the customer’s face that says, “No, I don’t understand”, but doesn’t want to admit it. At that moment, the salesperson could go over the point in a different way to shed more light. By making and maintaining eye contact, an employee is better able to read subtle cues about what a customer is really thinking and feeling.
6. Focus and give undivided attention.
Another way to communicate care is not to multi-task when dealing with a customer. Give a customer undivided attention when they are speaking. This is not only important for in-person interactions, but online ones as well. Turn off cell phones. An employee should give the customer complete, focused attention. It is not okay for a salesperson to mute a phone line during a virtual meeting or close out the video in order to do something else. (The same is true of the customer, by the way.) If committed to a meeting, stay on and engaged. Staying “in the moment” lets the customer know he/she is a priority.
7. Use virtual meeting tools to reduce the need for in-person communication.
There is really no reason to cram customers into a conference room for a meeting or closing. Tools like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and other virtual meeting platforms allow people to meet, see one other, and participate without being in physical proximity. Each person can share their screen, if there is something to show. Even for real estate and mortgage closings, documents can be notarized virtually. Not only does this minimize the potential spread of germs, but it’s a great way to save time by eliminating any commute. When people can log on from their desk instead of having to travel, or even take the time to walk to another building for a meeting, those saved minutes add up.
8. Communicate to reassure and express availability.
Whether it is a message to prospective customers or a communication to long-time clients, it’s important to communicate that the company is still open and doing business. This means reaching out by phone, email, social media or video to check in and explain what is happening. It means being overly-communicative in order to keep customers updated on the latest. Things are changing fast, and keeping them informed is a key part of service.
Even though it feels like everything has shifted and the old rules of doing business don’t apply, one thing never changes. Customers still want great service. Companies that stop delivering great service now will soon find that even though it’s not the end of the world, it might be the end of their business. Now more than ever, it is time to step up – and with great concern for healthy and safety – let customers know that they are needed, welcomed and valued…. no matter what.
Quote of the Week
“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” Jeff Bezos
© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.