Why Customer Service is More Important Now Than Ever Before
Few businesses have been spared from disruptions and changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the shift to online sales, new curbside delivery, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing practices, businesses have to rethink how they operate.
Now, as some states loosen restrictions and lift lockdowns, a new round of business adjustments are in order. How that will look will vary from business to business, be it revised cleaning practices, new store layouts, or redesigned POS protocols.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of customer service. In fact, it’s more important now than ever before. As McKinsey & Company points out:
“In times of crisis, a customer’s interaction with a company can trigger an immediate and lingering effect on his or her sense of trust and loyalty.”
Building And Growing Relationships During a Pandemic
Customer service comes down to one thing: relationships. This hasn’t changed due to COVID-19; building them, however, has become more important.
Harvard Business Review breaks down customer relationships into the HEART framework:
- H – Humanize your company
- E – Educate your customers about business changes
- A – Assure customers that your values have not changed
- R – Revolutionize and get creative with your service offerings
- T – Tackle the future and go above and beyond
Sounds simple, but when business as usual is upended by a world-wide outbreak, customer service looks a little different.
Learning to Adapt
One of the core principles that makes some businesses more successful than others is their ability to successfully adapt to changing market trends. During the pandemic, here are ways small businesses can address customer needs:
- Focus on customer care
- Promote health and safety measures
- Meet customers where they are
- Forecast for the future
- Focus on flexibility
Real World Examples: Applying Adaptation to Customer Service
In practice, what does adaptive customer service look like? Here are some examples that show how small business owners have gone above and beyond to help customers during this challenging time.
- Drive-up Dinner – With dining rooms closed in Charleston, South Carolina, one restaurateur found a new way to bring his customers a unique and personalized service: restaurant-worthy oyster service right in their front yards. Driving his Dodge Rampage, Chef Alex Lira shucks oysters from his truck bed for willing customers looking for a little something special during the pandemic, according to Eater. This personalized, yet still socially distanced service, is a creative way to meet customers where they are—at home.
- Retail Therapy – For small clothing boutiques, stay-at-home orders crushed sales, but some creative entrepreneurs adjusted. In Iowa City, some vintage shops found a way to continue making sales by bringing their products to their clients through social media. According to The Daily Iowan, the store found a way to sell pieces through Instagram stories, then sweetened the deal for shoppers by providing curbside pickup. Rather than merely shutting down, the boutiques found a way to serve clients in a digital space while following up with four-star in-person customer service.
- Motels Moving on Up – One surprise travel boom during the pandemic has been an increase in motel stays. In May, economy occupancies were 40%, according to McKinsey & Company, while luxury hotels saw a 15% dip. Partly fueled by a lack of big hotel options, guests said they turned to motels due to their emphasis on health and safety protocols, reports the Washington Post. This is just one way small accommodation businesses may be more flexible to adjust to the pandemic travel industry.
- Contactless Car Repair – With drivers staying off the roads and home, gas intake may have dipped, but that doesn't mean car repairs aren’t still required. One automotive repair company in Garner, North Carolina found a solution. Rather than have clients drive their cars to Swedish Performance and Parts, they’d send employees to pick up the cars for them. WRAL reports that the service was essential as many of Swedish Performance and Parts’ clients are frontline workers like healthcare employees who need their cars to get to work.
- Gardening Grows – With more time to contemplate home projects, garden stores experienced higher demand this spring. To optimize the interest, a Charlottesville, Virginia nursery shifted its entire sales room to curbside delivery. Fifth Season Gardening told NBC29 that behind the scenes efforts helped get clients what they needed in a safe way and allowed the company to extend hours and hire more staff.
How to Prepare Staff to Serve
Excellent customer service is not a one-person show. It’s a company-wide effort that requires everyone to be trained on best practices and be committed to delivering excellent results. Here’s how to get your staff ready to handle new customer service policies designed to help clients during the pandemic.
Get your staff on the same page so they can deliver a clear, consistent message that reassures customers. Remember, your customers are probably nervous about visiting your business during COVID-19. Having all your employees aligned on even the simplest tasks like where to wait until an employee can help or how to proceed through your shop, salon, or restaurant can reassure customers that their needs are being taken care of.
Emphasize Safety Compliance
Staff should be prepared to explain and defend all safety measures as well as enact them. This includes familiarizing themselves with state requirements and city rules and regulations. Take the time to train employees on how best to handle common questions and concerns so that customers can easily understand why you’ve instituted new policies and how those efforts are in their best interest.
In an anxious climate, small businesses owners should look to help assuage customers’ fears by clearly managing their expectations of their experience with your company. If you’re requiring masks in your space, tell them ahead of time. Post informational signage in a store, or have staff greet guests at the door to explain how their experience with your business will work. Don’t let confusion sully a customer’s experience with your brand.
Frustrations aside, challenging times like these reveal opportunities to innovate and even improve business practices. Let your customers know how you’re adapting to make your business as effective as possible. Maybe you’re a restaurant that provides an interactive menu customers can access through their phone (providing contactless ordering). Or maybe you’re a real estate agent who has always wanted to try out virtual reality home tours.
If you have the ability to innovate, now might be the best opportunity.
Keep communication channels open and well manned. Customers want to feel and be heard. The best way to do this is to give them an opportunity to communicate with your small business. By informing them of the best ways to get in touch, and then following up, small business owners can get this much-needed feedback and adjust as necessary. This simple strategy of asking for feedback and then acting on it can turn a negative experience by an angry customer into a learning experience that can encourage great service in the future, and even earn a new repeat customer.
Let your customers know you want to hear from them in a public forum. If you’re doing a great job, encourage your clients to share their positive experience on whatever review platform you prefer.
Promoting Great Customer Service
It’s not enough to simply employ great customer service. It’s also important for small businesses to get the word out about how they’re rising to the challenges of the pandemic. Especially considering research that suggests consumers want to support their local economy by supporting local businesses.
To garner the support of local shoppers looking to invest locally, here are some tips for how to share your new customer service options.
Do you have a robust subscriber list? Send your customers a quick email update to tell them about how you’ve adapted operations to serve them best. This can include new safety protocols, promotions, and just a general message of care and concern for those who have been loyal customers.
Business websites shouldn’t be static digital spaces. Use your site to your advantage by publishing the changes you’ve made to ensure clients receive the best possible customer service.
Share with the Media
If you have a great story about how you’re adjusting your business to the pandemic, let the local media know. You can’t put a price on free publicity like a feel-good story about your company.
Update Social Media
Social media channels, like Twitter and Facebook, can provide a great way to promote your customer service adaptations, showcase your great service, and engage in customer relations. Especially when many people are isolated at home.
Meet the Neighbors on Nextdoor
According to Nielsen, 92% of people trust recommendations from friends and family over any other type of advertising. To capitalize on the power of word of mouth, meet customers where they are, on Nextdoor.
Nextdoor allows community members to find local shops, restaurants, services—really, anything neighborhood related. Plus, according to internal surveys, 70% of Nextdoor members turn to word of mouth from family, friends, and neighbors as their most trusted source to discover new businesses in their neighborhoods.
Small businesses can get to know their communities and benefit its booming word of mouth economy by creating a free Nextdoor Business Page. It’s straightforward and puts you in contact with hyperlocal people who are ready to support local businesses.
If you want to build and grow relationships with those who matter most to your business—people in your local area—you need to:
- Adapt to new demands and challenges
- Train staff to serve customers efficiently
- Communicate effectively
For that last step, there’s Nextdoor.
SMBs have a responsibility to the well-being of their customers, especially during these uncertain times. And although extra provisions around customer service might be inconvenient in the short term, the long-term impact will be customers who are loyal well beyond the pandemic. Invest in them now, and see gains far into the future.
McKinsey & Company. Adapting customer experience in the time of coronavirus. www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/adapting-customer-experience-in-the-time-of-coronavirus
Business Queensland. Principles of good customer service. https://www.business.qld.gov.au/running-business/consumer-laws/customer-service/improving/principles#:~:text=The%20key%20to%20good%20customer,is%20likely%20to%20spend%20more.
Eater.com. James Island Bar Offers Freshly Shucked Oysters Delivered to Your Driveway. carolinas.eater.com/2020/7/9/21315935/bar-george-oysters
The Daily Iowan. Vintage goes virtual: downtown clothing shops have shifted to social media sales. dailyiowan.com/2020/05/06/vintage-goes-virtual-downtown-clothing-shops-have-shifted-to-social-media-sales/
Washington Post. Amid the pandemic, motels stage a major comeback. www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/amid-the-pandemic-motels-stage-a-major-comeback/2020/08/20/697c2214-d7f7-11ea-930e-d88518c57dcc_story.html
WRAL. Auto repair shops offer 'no contact appointments' to protect against spreading coronavirus. www.wral.com/coronavirus/auto-repair-shops-offer-no-contact-appointments-to-protect-against-spreading-coronavirus/19036377/
NBC29. Charlottesville gardening store sees growing demand during COVID-19 pandemic. https://www.nbc29.com/2020/04/10/charlottesville-gardening-store-sees-growing-demand-during-covid-pandemic/
PR Newswire. Consumers Want to Support Their Local Economy by Supporting Local Businesses, According to a Survey by ZypMedia. www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/consumers-want-to-support-their-local-economy-by-supporting-local-businesses-according-to-a-survey-by-zypmedia-301066610.html
Big Commerce. Word of Mouth Marketing in 2020: How to Create a Strategy for Social Media Buzz & Skyrocket Referral Sales. www.bigcommerce.com/blog/word-of-mouth-marketing/#what-is-word-of-mouth-marketing
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