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Why first-rate customer service should be a priority for non-essential retailers set to reopen

12 June 2020 Small Business Advice

UK Business Secretary, Alok Sharma declared that non-essential retailers can open their doors once again from Monday 15th June. After announcing that the UK’s economy has shrunk over 20% for the month of April, those high street retailers that have weathered the lockdown storm, are desperate to start trading again. But how will consumers react to their new freedom to shop? 

With new demographics forced to purchase online in the comfort of their homes, some ecommerce sites have benefitted from bricks and mortar closures. For a lot of people, switching to a contact free delivery is a convenience they’re unlikely to give up. 

But being cooped up in our homes for months on end, has caused an isolation and loneliness that has been incomparable, especially for the elderly and less able communities. For many of us, though we’d hate to admit it, popping on our best frock to buy some milk has been the highlight of our day.

Spenders can’t wait to part with their cash and many are craving the true experience of retail therapy once more. The simple things, like, walking around a store, speaking to another person, touching a piece of clothing, are all interchanges that will take on a new level of meaning.

Yet not everything will return to normality, and post-lockdown splurging will look a lot different to the scenes we’re familiar with. Customers and staff will be faced with some logistical challenges, such as: 

  • Limiting the capacity of customers in the store at once
  • Ensuring social distancing practices are enforced
  • Creating a one-way system to control the flow of customers
  • Providing protective barriers between staff and customers

All of these practical challenges may be easy to implement, but will rely on store owners and employees’ ability to make customers feel confident, comfortable and welcomed in the store. The way to achieve this is to go above and beyond with customer service. But how exactly will customer service change for retailers, given a shift in norms?

How will Covid-19 change customer service?

Independent retailers already know the importance of brand loyalty. Going the extra mile for customers is second nature, not something that has to be taught. But in times where being tactile isn’t an option, and too much choice can be burdening, how can you adapt the way you connect meaningfully with customers?

Changes in communication

Don’t assume, tell

Things are in a constant flux of change, and people aren’t always able to take stock of, or understand the new ways of living. As a shop owner, you shouldn’t expect your customers to know the right or wrong ways to behave under new health guidelines. It is up to you and your staff to communicate how to safely shop in your store, without endangering themselves or others. You should do this by:

  • Having someone to greet shoppers in a friendly manner at the door
  • Telling staff to explain social distancing, one-way system rules, and health guidelines before shoppers enter the door (e.g. Ask customers not to enter your store if they are feeling unwell)
  • Having staff in key areas to guide shoppers around the store
  • Providing signage to reinforce verbal cues and further prompt customers

Reconsider non-verbal cues 

Smiling is a great way to show customers they are welcome in your shop and you’re approachable, should they need assistance. However, with face coverings expected as the new norm, we can no-longer rely on non-verbal cues to make customers feel at ease. 

These small gestures make a huge difference to a shopper’s experience, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Instead of a hidden smile then, try these alternative subtle acts to help customers feel assured:

  • Say hello to shoppers as they enter the store 
  • Use other gestures, such as a wave or a head nod to accompany what you say
  • Consider creating badges for staff to wear that share a nice welcome message

Be proactive in assisting customers

Ordinarily customers will appreciate the extra time and space to peruse at their leisure, touching and picking up different items as they pass. But with contact still a major risk factor, it’s only natural for customers to recoil at the thought of touching too many items. In which case, staff should be extra intuitive in helping customers locate the right stock. Additionally, if stock is mainly handled by staff, there is less cleaning down to do in between shoppers.

Allocate your staff a uniform or dress code

Prior to lockdown, smaller independent shops may have had no desire or need to distinguish staff between customers with an official uniform. Depending on the size of the store, it still may not be necessary. However, to help customers and staff be seen, it may be helpful to ask employees to wear a single bright coloured top—orange for example, so that they are easy to identify should a customer need them for any reason.

Safety before sales

In pre-pandemic times, the main KPI of great customer service was to increase sales and brand loyalty. While this is still true, customer service should now prioritise the safety of staff and customers over sales. 

In the first few months of trading, expect to take less money, for the sake of allowing customers to adapt to new ways of shopping. This could mean limiting customers to a certain amount of stock, asking them to queue outside, or pay with card only.  These may seem like limitations for you, or your customers, but with the right customer service skills and effective communication, shoppers will be thankful for the consideration of their health, over a profit. 


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