In virtually all industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has had enormous impacts on how business is conducted. While businesses such as bars and restaurants have been forced to shut their doors entirely or focus solely on carryout, others have shifted to a predominantly remote workplace, with staff conducting business from home.
Even as the pandemic subsides, businesses open back up, and staff return to work, companies should not expect to return to business as usual. For one thing, the “new normal” will have to take into consideration the fact that companies need to rethink their in-person contact with customers.
For companies where employees are already having face-to-face contact (e.g., grocery stores, etc.), as well as for those that may have that contact as the economy begins to open up, there will be new ways of dealing and interacting with customers.
Companies shouldn’t assume employees will understand what this entails, what the expectations are, and how they can keep themselves and their customers safe. What should companies be doing to provide training, information, and education to staff?
Health and Safety
The most obvious reason to rethink in-person customer interaction is to ensure the health and safety of employees and customers alike. Not only is this the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, but it’s also critical for business continuity.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic is truly under firm control, it’s simply an undue risk to potentially expose staff to highly infectious disease. A single employee contracting COVID-19 could force the shutdown of an entire office. This can result not only in staff working remotely but also in staff being unable to work at all as they recover from illness.
Even if companies—for whatever reason—aren’t overly wary of the health and safety risks of staff-to-customer contact, they should be cognizant of the impact not taking sufficient precautions can have on their company image.
For example, a grocery store that seems to be lax with cleaning heavily trafficked areas or taking precautions against having too many staff and customers congregating in small areas will be perceived as caring little for the well-being of employees and customers alike. If those customers feel safer and more valued at another location, they’ll likely start shopping there instead.
Tools for Success for Remote Interactions
While some businesses will need to adjust to dealing directly with customers and clients face-to-face, others will need to adapt to handling remote interactions effectively.
It’s difficult to completely replace the value of in-person meetings with customers, but that’s the reality many businesses are facing now and may continue to face in the future. While some businesses may continue to require in-person interaction, there are a number of tools that can be implemented to avoid that necessity.
Telecommunications technology has made significant advances in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a major impetus for companies to continue to roll out new and better tools to support the new normal.
Businesses should think carefully about what interactions can be moved entirely online and avoid the need for in-person contact. Some of these are obvious: virtual meetings instead of in-person meetings, using webinars instead of in-person conferences or training, and video chats instead of lunches.
But by thinking creatively, companies can find and have been finding alternatives to other seemingly necessary points of contact. Can a receptionist help a customer via a video feed from a different room instead of speaking face-to-face? Can payments be handled without any contact by using online portals or smartphone technology?
There are certainly a wide array of solutions that can be employed to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the need for in-person interaction between staff and customers. The key is to ensure those tools are available to staff and that they are trained in their efficient and effective use.
Going the Extra Mile in Relationship Management
Customers understand the need to avoid unnecessary in-person contact and interaction. But that doesn’t mean companies should be complacent in letting those relationships, built up over years of hard work, weaken. Companies that can’t, or choose not to, meet their customers face-to-face may want to consider reaching out by phone or video chat more frequently or sending care packages to let customers know they’re still top of mind.
The costs of such gestures are relatively minimal, especially when compared with the time and money spent on cross-country travel for in-person visits that may now be either impossible or unnecessary.
Local, State, and Federal Laws and Regulations
In addition to it being sound business practice, maintaining social distancing and other workplace restrictions may be required by law. The country faces a patchwork of different rules and stay-at-home requirements. Company legal and compliance teams should be careful to craft policies with those rules in mind.
As Lynne Anderson, a labor and employment and litigation partner with the law firm Faegre Drinker, points out “Employers will have to comply with state and local directives, which will guide when and how to reopen. As examples, in New York and New Jersey, the Governors’ stay-at-home orders are set to expire May 15, 2020.”
More information on closures and other emergency orders that are currently in effect are available on the firm’s COVID-19: Government Actions resource page.
“While employers will have to comply with state and local directives, on the federal level, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released guidance to assist businesses in making decisions regarding reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Anderson says.
Companies spend a great deal of time and effort cultivating strong relationships and goodwill with their customers. It can be tempting to move as quickly as possible to restore the in-person contacts that are often key to those relationships.
However, the return to something resembling “normal” will be a much slower process than the changes that brought the business world to where it is now. Customers can expect companies to take steps to safeguard their health and safety, even if it removes some of the personal connections they’ve come to expect.
By implementing and training staff on the use of telecommunications technology, and shifting consumer expectations, the potential negative impact of interactions in the future can be significantly reduced.