By Lesley-Caren Johnson

As we are all aware, the Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown in our country has had a detrimental effect on the economy, and on just about every business. Every day we hear the statistics pertaining to unemployment, the number of people who have been retrenched, as well as the number of businesses that have had to close shop. It is devastating to say the least, and certainly has a negative impact on our collective psyche. However, life goes on, as “they” say and for those of us still in business, we need to make the most of the current situation.

While going into level one lockdown feels as though things are beginning to return to normal, we must remember that the pandemic is not over. In fact, we have been told to brace ourselves for that inevitable second wave – and we still need to maintain the health and safety standards that should have been implemented in each and every business.

I have ventured out into shopping centres, restaurants and various businesses and have noted that some places have become rather lax of late. Stores are allowing too many customers in at a time; restaurants are not keeping to the maximum 50 percent capacity limits; some businesses are not taking their visitors’ temperatures or completing the register. Some aren’t even requiring that staff and visitors to the premises wear masks etc. None of this makes your customer – or potential customer – feel safe or indeed, make them want to support you.

With so many people staying away from shopping centres, restaurants and other busy public spaces, business owners should be assessing ways to still reach their customers and provide an exceptional level of service to ensure customer satisfaction and of course, repeat business.

Take off the blinkers, go back to basics, and take a good hard look at how you are doing things. Especially during these times of business (un)usual.

Start with the following five questions.

Answer each question by doing a deep dive and critical assessment of the business and the way you do things. Once you know what you may be doing wrong, or not doing particularly well, you can come up with a plan to make improvements.

1.      Is it easy for customers to do business with you?

One of my biggest frustrations when dealing with a business is when I, as the customer, must jump through hoops when trying to make a purchase. When establishing their business policies and procedures, many business owners tend to complicate matters by wanting to cover themselves as opposed to making it easy for their customers to do business with them.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes when assessing your policies and procedures and ask yourself if you would do business with such a company if the processes were so cumbersome or even onerous on you as the customer. We all have to regularly deal with a call centre or a licencing department or a municipality and it is so frustrating, yet instead of making life easy for our customers, we implement policies and procedures in our business which are just as annoying. In many instances people have no choice when dealing with certain institutions, but as a customer I can exercise my right to choose and spend my money in businesses that are a pleasure to deal with.

Here are some examples of what to look at when addressing this question:

  • Business operating hours – are your operating hours convenient for your customers?
  • Availability of stock items and advertised lines – are customers able to get what they need or what you have advertised?
  • Returns, refunds and exchanges – are they clear and simple? Can customers easily understand your policy and, is it easy for them to comply? Do your employees understand the policy and are they able to implement it?
  • Answering your customer – answering the telephone and replying to emails or online enquiries quickly and efficiently – and professionally.

2.      Are customers getting exceptional service from you and your staff when coming into your business?

Businesses spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising to drive feet into the business, but this is no guarantee that a lead will become a paying customer. The service and experience customers receive when entering the business plays a large role in their decision to buy from you – or not. It is how the customer feels when entering your business and how they are treated by you and your staff that will go a long way in ensuring they buy from you.

Critically assess the service you and your staff are giving to customers as well as your attitude towards customers, and ask yourself if you would purchase from the business or indeed go back if you were treated in the same way.

Monitor the following customer touch points:

  • Are customers greeted and acknowledged when entering the premises?
  • Is an employee available at the entrance to assist customers with hand sanitising, wiping down a trolley or basket, or completing the register with a temperature thermometer?
  • Are the staff asking customers if they can be of assistance?
  • Are sufficient staff on duty to serve customers?
  • Are staff visible and available to deal with customer enquiries?
  • Are you and your staff going the extra mile to ensure customer satisfaction?
  • What do you do – or what can you do – to make the customer’s experience just that much more memorable?

You cannot afford to lose even one customer so make the most of the customers you have, and once they are in your business do everything possible to a) ensure the sale and b) maximise it!

3.      Can customers access your products or services via multiple channels?

With so many people still feeling the effect of the lockdown, many customers may not want to come and physically shop in your store or eat in your restaurant. Have you provided these customers with alternative channels to access your products or services?

  • The obvious one is your website so that customers can order online and have their order delivered, but then remember to ensure that the website is up to date and that it works properly – across all platforms (Desktop, Mobile and Tablet).
  • Make sure that your delivery is also efficient and that you are able to deliver within the turnaround time promised, which is generally sooner rather than later. In these times customers are ordering essentials and not only luxuries and they would prefer not to wait and might choose another business over yours if it could arrive sooner, even if they had to pay a bit extra.  You could also use companies like Uber Eats and Mr. D for food. Sign up to sell on Takealot for products and create an online payment system on your website for services through the likes of Payfast or Paypal.
  • If your business provides a service, look at ways to assist customers differently such as via online consultations (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts calls) or
  • Look at ways in which you can package your service more as a product. If you offer a “chat” facility on your website, ensure that this is manned during the times you advertise or at least have a ‘bot’ set up with FAQ; or
  • If you allow customers to interact with you on social media, ensure that you respond within acceptable timelines and provide an auto-acknowledgement of their message.

4.      Do your customers know where to find you?

Make sure that your business address and location are correctly advertised on your website, Google Places and social media pages. Make it easy for your customers to find you. You may also want to include directions or GPS coordinates. Just make sure they find their way to you.

5.      Are your staff equipped – and empowered – to deal with customer issues?

When times are tough and a business is struggling, the expenses that the owner tends to cut first are marketing and staff training. I would argue that these are the aspects of the business that you should be spending more on! You want potential customers to be aware of you, your products and services and where you are located AND you want your employees to be able to provide great service and professionalism from the minute the customer walks through the door. If you view your marketing and training as an investment in the business as opposed to an expense, you will quickly realise that if done properly, you can realise a return on the investment.

Think about potential issues that could arise pertaining to your COVID-19 business policies.

What if a customer refuses to wear a mask in your business, or refuses to sanitise their hands on entering etc.? Are your staff equipped to deal with these issues in a professional way?

Staff training is not a once-off. It requires:

  • Ongoing assessment for effectiveness,
  • Adaption to meet the changing times, and
  • Consistent implementation.

Furthermore, do not just train your employees to be aware of what you expect, but rather empower them to make certain decisions. What happens if the owner is not in the business and there is a customer complaint? Train and empower staff to think and make informed decisions knowing that you will back them in front of the customer. You will not only have happy customers, but your employees will feel empowered and valued as well.

While you obviously want to attract new customers to the business, do not forget about your existing customers. You cannot afford to lose even one customer to poor service or an indifferent attitude. Keep giving them reasons to come back and buy from you!