Customer service in the wake of COVID-19

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Last Friday, I had my teeth cleaned after my dentist’s office reopened as COVID-19 restrictions relaxed in my area. As expected, new protocols were in place, including: social distancing in the office requiring patients to call from the parking lot to ascertain whether or not there was room in the waiting area – which can now safely accommodate only three patients; wearing of masks; completion of a patient COVID-19 health disclosure; body temperature check; hand sanitizer station; and antiseptic wipes to sterilize the thermometer, clipboard, and pen after use.

My dentist, Annette, greeted me as I entered the treatment room. She expressed genuine interest in how I was navigating this unusual season. She inquired about my son, a college freshman, and how he dealt with the premature end to his first year away from home. She asked about my wife and when she could expect to see her, now that the office had reopened. (I told her that she was second in line after Julie was first able to secure an appointment with her hairdresser.) And she was especially attentive to reassuring me that her office had taken additional steps, beyond those I had experienced, to mitigate the threat of the virus.

Holly, the technician who cleaned my teeth, wore extensive personal protective equipment (PPE) that included gloves, a mask, and a clear face shield. She said that, given the intensity of the ultrasonic scaling instrument ordinarily used to remove tartar, hygienists reverted back to hand tools to reduce their exposure to germ-laden overspray. Holly has been cleaning my teeth for years. Ordinarily, we hug after my visits but this time, under the circumstances, we settled for an elbow tap. On my way out, the receptionist made my next appointment from behind a plexiglass partition.

This experience highlights a number of priorities that businesses, regardless of industry, must take into account as they prepare to serve customers in a world changed by COVID-19:

Customer safety: Conditions including masks, social distancing, body temperature checks, one-way staircases and shopping aisles, mobile and other no-contact alternatives to physical interaction with employees, and other interventions will be instituted to ensure customer health and safety.

Employee safety: Actions that include providing PPE to employees such as masks, shields, and gloves, telecommuting and staggered shifts to limit the number of employees on-site, social distancing, plexiglass barriers, disposable pads atop work surfaces to catch germs, and added remedies will be adopted to safeguard employee health and safety.

Environmental hygiene: Both public areas as well as those restricted to employees will be expected to be hygienically clean to a standard not seen prior to COVID-19. Hotels, for instance, will be expected to go well beyond dusting, vacuuming, and changing linens. And hand sanitizer stations, antiseptic wipes, gloves, and masks will be expected in settings other than healthcare.

Conscious attunement: I deliberately avoided the overused term “empathy” here in favor of “attunement.” While both terms relate to being deliberate in our communication, attunement, to me, implies a heightened sense of awareness and responsibility to detect and respond appropriately to another’s emotional needs and moods. It will be important for businesses to be attuned to customer sensitivities pertaining to, for instance, social distancing, the wearing of PPE, availability of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer, etc. Organizations that convey indifference towards these protocols will risk alienating customers that expect (or demand) compliance for their own personal health and safety.

It is clear that businesses will need to adapt to the realities of a world forever altered by COVID-19. And while these adaptions continue to evolve, there are four priorities that will be embraced and practiced by savvy organizations: customer safety, employee safety, environmental hygiene, and conscious attunement. Those businesses that are prepared to reinforce safety and wellness and, in doing so, instill confidence in customers and employees alike, will have an advantage as the world adjusts to a new normal.

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