As the pandemic rages and wanes and rages again, most Americans are under a level of stress and anxiety completely foreign to anything they’ve ever experienced.
Living in a constant state of anxiety also colors our perception of the world and our interactions with individuals in unforeseen ways, and that encompasses retail environments. The percentage of consumers who report having an experience that met or exceeded their expectation declined across three key dimensions over the course of a month, according to our recent study.
Only 62% of consumers reported a positive experience with associate helpfulness (down 6%); 66% reported a positive experience with associate friendliness (down 5%); and 70% reported a positive experience with store cleanliness (also down 5%).
It makes sense that some store associates are responding in less friendly or helpful ways, since they work under stressful circumstances. Many are battling their own fears and anxiety about potential exposure to COVID-19 while at work, and it follows that they’re less likely to seek out customers to assist. The more people they interact with, the greater the risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families.
Meanwhile, retailers in parts of the country with declining infection rates may perceive the rigorous COVID-19 cleaning practices that some people expect to no longer be necessary, which helps explain the disconnect between expectations and actual conditions.
To improve customer experience during this time of rapid change and unprecedented fluidity, soliciting customer feedback after each transaction is key — but providing an empathetic and responsive environment for employees is equally important. Here are four areas to focus on:
Take action to improve less-than-ideal working conditions. Communicate the changes, and then proactively follow up with employees to make sure they’re producing the intended effect.
Hold team meetings at the start of each shift. Allow employees to freely express their emotions. Understand the emotional ride they’re experiencing while at work, and their overall response to present conditions.
Provide a suggestion box or email address for those who don’t feel comfortable expressing their thoughts publicly.
Consistently measure employee experience if you aren’t already. Ask your employees for the same feedback you solicit from customers, and then 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.
While the decline in customer experience is troubling, it’s not too late to reverse the trend, and the larger focus should be on getting everyone from corporate executives and managers to store associates and consumers to practice empathy. When retail environments feel like calming, supportive places, people will be happier to go there and spend money.