As many businesses limp back to normalcy, a brand new problem is confronting many managements. Due to survival measures and operational upheavals during the pandemic, many service-driven industries are suddenly under-equipped to service their customers at expected levels. This experience mismatch may well lead to the â€˜chicken-and-egg dissonanceâ€™, users reappearing when brands are not ready for them.
A fascinating case study was presented by a dear friend who visited two well-established five star properties in the recent past, bucking the conservative trends. In both places, he observed that occupancy was remarkably high, buoyed by increasing consumer confidence and incredible rate packages. Yet in either case, the service infrastructure was suboptimal as clearly the hotels had reduced staff presence in tune with pandemic business levels as optimistic forecasting was not consistent with the P&L imperatives. While the patronage was truly valued and the intent was outstanding, the operating dynamics of the business was being altered in terms of basic staff-guest ratios among other things. So, the familiar guests were a little perturbed and while everybody empathised with the situation, the satisfaction levels were dropping alarmingly.
A similar situation exists in the luxury retail sector, where a quick survey confirmed that mall stores were being punily serviced and well trained staff were laid off in favour of lower CTC stopgaps. Those brave enough to fly, domestic or international, were quick to note that the services were severely curtailed and while this was regulatory, the experiential damage cannot be concealed. On a matter concerned with car lease, we had visited the office of a global leader in the absence of call centre assistance and were dismayed to note just a solitary security guard manfully handling the once-bustling premises. In hospitals, less said the better as even a brand as large as Fortis (now Parkway) is unable to handle the kindergarten dynamics of online appointments, irritating both patients and consultants.
In all of the above and many more anecdotes, an alarmingly consistent pattern emerges. Due to pressures of dramatic business drop, entire service protocols had to be realigned in many sectors, which bore the brunt of the pandemic. Hapless boardrooms responded by rapid or staggered termination and a hasty switch to survival mode as opposed to experience enhancement protocols. Most notably, training and development suffered as well and also the emotional morale of the workforce, and I use this term most deliberately. When a front-end customer engagement resource faces the most momentous insecurities of her lifetime, there is bound to be an impact on professional deliveries, as happiness is a key input ingredient. The secret sauce of motivation gets slowly guillotined and what the customer is intended to feel is much different from what she truly feels.
So, how exactly can businesses prepare to service the early adopters who are putting both faith and wallet upfront? One thing that this crisis has taught us well is the magic of candour and honesty, valid for both provider and receiver. Deliveries are overshadowing promise in all spheres and owners must take advantage of this environment, in a positive and constructive manner. So, if you are a hotel offering unimaginable packages, do own up on paper when receiving the booking that you are actually at 50% levels of performance. State most clearly that outcomes may take more time than expected but the care and affections will be first rate. This is the best opportunity that brands have to connect on human emotional terms with their customers and this cannot be squandered by the arrogance of unsustainable past equilibriums. I have a clear hunch that be it healthcare or hospitality, customers are willing to accept the frailties of the offerings, as long as they are presented in an honest and timely fashion.
Yet another crucial element in this equation is the emotional training of the staff, many who have been occupationally threatened themselves or have witnessed the termination of near and dear friends. This is analogical to wartime attrition and there significant lessons to be learnt from the conflict zones. Firstly, those in the frontline must be armed with added emotional equity, recognising their stellar role in the business and in being a bridge to the users. Then, through online or whatever means, their training levels must be significantly upped, not as conventional skills but as sensitivity to pandemic sensitive customers. Which certainly means a fair degree of skill demonstration but also with the infusion of tactical candour and a reality check, as exceptional normalcy is not the recipe of the day. This is a challenge for HR departments as a certain sustainable perfection is the objective of most but in this case, the situation demands a graded transition, from resumption of tidings to a return to ideal levels.
This article wishes to articulate a simple yet significant point that must be recognised by both customer and provider. It is unfair to expect a business to resume truncated services at past delight levels and it is equally unfair to expect the buyer to accept anything less than past delight levels. Thus a new equilibrium must emerge and that must be nurtured by honesty and love, not just transactional marketing.
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