The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many complications into our daily lives, from mentally calculating just how far two metres is, to washing our hands for 20 seconds, to dealing with unprecedented change and uncertainty.
For people working in retail and service sectors , those complications are magnified.
Depending on where your business is located, store capacity might be restricted — or your retail locations might need to close entirely. From challenges with global retail supply chains to installing protective screens at cash desks to introducing curbside pickup, businesses are constantly pivoting.
And, most likely, all of your employees and customers are now required to wear masks.
For the foreseeable future, one of the most important tasks for you and your staff will be to create a genuine human connection with customers from behind a mask.
We’ve compiled 8 tips for mask-friendly customer service:
1. Start With the Big Picture
A post on the Suasion Communications Group blog offers an extensive list of tips and strategies called Behind the Mask – Delivering Customer Service in a Post-Pandemic World. It covers everything from understanding the fears and emotions of your customers to developing staff guidelines to playing up the growing desire to ‘shop local.’
When you and your staff understand the big picture, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident in the role mask-wearing plays in safety policies and protocols — and that can only help reassure your customers.
2. Give A Genuine Greeting
Welcome every customer with an enthusiastic verbal greeting, like “Hello!” or “Thanks for coming in!” And, even though people can’t see your mouth behind a mask, it’s still important to smile. Research has shown that a sincere smile — called a Duchenne smile — raises your cheeks and eyebrows, and causes wrinkles (known as crow’s feet) around the corners of your eyes. It’s an important way to show customers you are happy to see them.
3. Make Eye Contact
By looking another person in the eye, you connect with them on a human level. Eye contact acknowledges that the customer is your priority, and tells shoppers they are important to you. It’s a signal of respect, and a powerful way to strengthen customer satisfaction.
4. Using Your Voice
In a Harvard Business Review article called Practice Your “Mask Voice:” How to Build Rapport … While Wearing a Mask, writer Dustin York says, “The quality of your voice makes a big difference in how people respond emotionally to what you say, and this is true in both personal and professional interactions. Even if we say the exact same things but in different tones, people will respond differently.”
York says our voices are more important than ever when we wear masks, and he uses the acronym PAVE to help people remember four key elements: pause, accentuate, volume, and emotion.
Pause: Normally, visual cues of the mouth help us to see when a speaker is pausing for a response. Since we can’t see that now, make a conscious effort to noticeably pause here and there to give people opportunities to jump in or respond. This also breaks up your message into digestible chunks.
Accentuate: Avoid monotony by accentuating key phrases and information, but don’t always accentuate in the same way. Use different intonation.
Volume: Masks have a slight muffling effect so speak up (but don’t shout, obviously).
Emotion: In appropriate moments, try to make your voice more expressive by conveying positive emotions like excitement, awe, gratitude, and sympathy. Do this in moderation since you don’t want to come across as if you’re performing Shakespeare.
5. Use Gestures to Connect
In the same article, York also explains how gestures can convey meaning and emotion. He recommends that, while wearing a mask, you should increase the level of your gesturing by about 10%.
For example, give a cheerful wave as part of your greeting and a quick thumbs up when you thank a customer.
6. Ask for Verbal Feedback Instead of Relying on Facial Expressions
In the Forbes article How To Deliver “Service With A Smile” In The Age Of Covid-19, author Jon Picoult writes that, “without the benefit of full facial expressions to sense a customer’s emotional state, employees should go out of their way to elicit verbal indicators. Whereas in the past, staff could have used visual cues to know if a customer was satisfied or not, in the current environment they should err on the side of asking: Have I addressed all of your needs? Do you have any other concerns? Do you understand the information I’ve shared with you? The exact query will vary depending on the situation, but the point is to rely on verbal checkpoints to gauge the customer’s affect, instead of trying to infer it from visual cues.”
7. Demonstrate Patience, Not Frustration, At Being Misheard
In the Boss Magazine article Here’s How to Provide Fantastic Customer Service (With a Mask On), author Caleb Danziger explains that masks can compound the feeling of frustration if you are misheard. He writes, “If a customer is continually mishearing you, don’t lose your composure. Likewise, if they’re the ones losing their cool at the communication challenges, don’t rise to the bait. The conversation will echo the tone of the party who communicates with the greatest empathy, respect and patience.”
8. Heighten Awareness Among Employees
In the Forbes article mentioned above, writer Jon Picoult also points out that “[w]earing a face mask will soon become second nature for employees, and many may even forget that their facial expressions are shrouded from the customers and co-workers with whom they interact. Continually remind staff of this, so they’re more aware of the need to supplement facial expressions with other communication signals.”
As humans, we are highly social animals with an amazing ability to communicate and to understand one another. Despite the challenges that wearing a mask can present, there are still effective techniques we can develop to help ensure a satisfying customer experience , so customers are comfortable and safe shopping at your location and will return.
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