Customer service: navigating the ‘new normal’

28 September 2020, 10:58 AM
  • How to ensure shopper satisfaction remains high amidst Covid-19 restrictions
Customer service: navigating the ‘new normal’

While Covid-19 has changed many things around retailing, the customer experience should not be one of them. Shoppers, however tentatively in the current circumstances, are championing independents more than ever before for the quality produce and service they receive. As lockdown slowly began to ease, social distancing measures have still been in place and necessary changes have been needed in order to serve customers safely and within the guidelines.

Clear communication
Cheesemonger Cheese Please remained open throughout the lockdown, and Fran Sterry explains how clear body language and signage in-store has been more important than ever when it comes to customers. “Being in a privileged position to stay open throughout lockdown, we have had time to adjust our standards in line with the changing mood on the high street,” she says. “In the beginning there was a lot of anxiety and we were careful to be very conscious of this; you not only have to be aware of how you are behaving around customers but also of how others are in the shop. Clear signage and communication are key, if someone is behaving irresponsibly it is important to offer guidance politely.”

Dealing with customer restrictions
With social distancing guidelines in place it has meant fewer customers have been permitted in-store at the same time, and with queues forming out the door during busy periods, a swifter service may be needed. Fran explains that taking the time to acknowledge wait times with customers is important. “As the country opens up things have had to change further, the footfall in the shop increased and people are more relaxed. It is hard work keeping standards to the levels they were before. Because there is limited space behind my counter, there is only ever one person serving at a time. Service has to be swift and unfortunately this gives us less time to engage with the customer. If they see a queue they are on the whole very understanding, but I always make a point of thanking them for their patience. I think it is important to understand that we are still dealing with so many unknowns and to a degree we are learning on the job.”

During quieter times, however, having very limited customers allowed in the shop can have a positive side, with more one-on-one interaction and an opportunity to have sole focus on the customer. New owner of The Hartington Cheese Shop, Chris Roberts, took over the establishment in June as it reopened after lockdown. He says that restrictions in numbers in store has resulted in a calm atmosphere in the shop and allowed for more personal interactions. “Due to the small size of the shop we decided to insist on only one customer/couple at a time,” Chris explains. “When the weather is fine, this works well; people patiently waiting their turn (as we have become accustomed to). The atmosphere in the shop is calmer as the flow of customers has become a steady, controlled constant due to the queueing system. It has allowed us to talk individually to each customer and find out a little more about their reasons for visiting, etc. It has only been during the occasional torrential downpour that we have seen our queue ‘dissolve’.”

Increase staff training
For many cheesemongers, staff training is always a top priority in order to keep employees up-to-date with produce, selling techniques and customer service skills. In navigating the ‘new normal’ this will naturally need to increase to keep everyone on the same page and performing to high standards. Tasting opportunities, which were once a core part of the customer shopping experience are now no longer so, but if offering a sample being aware of each step and keeping hygiene as a top priority is essential for staff. Delifonseca proprietor, Candice Fonseca, says, “In terms of the cheese counter, we’ve removed everything from the display tops and have also stopped putting samples out. We can still offer specific samples if an individual wants to try something, but staff have to be careful to put the cheese onto a toothpick and place it into a ramekin for the customer to pick up. Likewise, when staff dispose of it after use, they need to pick up the ramekin and tip the toothpick into the bin without touching it. Specific sampling is still possible, it’s just that each step must be thought through.”

Ensuring that staff are as knowledgeable as can be about the produce is of new importance when it comes to maintaining superior levels of customer service. Fran says, “Due to the limited space behind the counter I have had to keep staffing to a minimum, this will likely change as the lockdown relaxes and we come into our busy winter season. Staff training has naturally had to increase to ensure their safety as well as the safety of our customers. Because we are no longer offering tastings of the cheeses, further training on our produce has been integral. It’s important to keep staff up to date on how things are changing, to not assume that because you will behave in a certain way that they will too. Most important is to continue to offer praise, it is not easy to work in customer service during a pandemic, and my staff deserve to know the value of what they do.”

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