With masks mandatory in 33 states, hidden smiles and muffled voices make face-to-face (mask-to-mask?) customer service more challenging than ever before. Add to those basic communication issues the “battle between the masked and the masked-nots” and customer service becomes yet another practice demanding a “new normal.”
“The face mask, the social distancing, the hand hygiene, staying smart about gatherings and staying out of crowded bars and crowded restaurants. If we did those five things, we’ve done modeling data, we get the same bang for the buck as if we just shut the entire economy down.” -Robert Redfield, CDC Director
The greeting. The most basic element of face-to-face customer service is a clear welcome. We have always emphasized a smile, possibly accompanied by a verbal greeting. Now, the verbal greeting is even more important. Some organizations give staff a script to follow (“Welcome to Moe’s!”). When I work with small groups, I have each person create their own appropriate greeting. Those greetings will feel more authentic to both the worker and the customer.
The smile. With masks in place, a quick show of teeth won’t be seen. Even without masks, that sort of perfunctory smile doesn’t really convey the welcome we want to offer. Practice smiling with your eyes — what psychologists call a “Duchenne smile” — so that customers see that you really are happy to see them.
Tone of voice: Phone reps are trained to smile when on the phone with customers because that smile carries over into their tone of voice. Smiling helps the mood on both sides of the desk. Life is pretty stressful for everyone right now. If we can add a bit of a sunshine to our own and others’ lives, isn’t that important work to do?
Positive Attitude and Mask Enforcement: When the front-door greeter also needs to make sure customers are wearing a mask, the smile, tone, and attitude are vital to making the interaction a positive one. Usually, a positive attitude is contagious. If your smiling greeter says, “Hi! Welcome to Pubibuliwinks! We are so glad you are here! Let Lottie at the front desk know if we can help with anything. Do you have your mask with you? No? Here, you can have this one.” They are less likely to get pushback than if they are negative in tone and wording, “You can’t come in if you don’t have a mask.” It feels a lot less confrontational, particularly if you can offer a disposable mask at the outset.
Make eye contact: Those smiling eyes need to meet the eyes of your customer. Eye contact shows that the employee is listening and conveys respect, further reinforcing the atmosphere of welcome.
Speak clearly and project a bit more: Be aware of whether you are being heard and understood when wearing a mask. Lip motion is one of the many cues that everyone, even those with perfect hearing, use to decode speech. So it is harder to “hear” when we can’t see each other’s mouths. To help the auditory part of that communication, articulate your words more carefully and speak up a bit, particularly if you are a low-talker. And be careful how you raise your voice. Some of us tend to sound impatient or angry when we simply intend to speak more loudly.
Be Patient: A cornerstone of customer service is patience and empathy. These goals are even more vital and harder to accomplish in stressful times. With fewer facial cues, your tone of voice and body language needs to convey that patience. Remember how you feel when you are a customer, and put yourself in their shoes. Being in an empathetic mindset helps your body language, just as an invisible smile shows up in your voice. Take care that your “patient voice” comes across as empathetic and not patronizing or exasperated. Roll-playing difficult situations is a great way to practice and get feedback on your tone.
Posture: Putting a six-foot space or a piece of plexiglass between customers and employees changes the messaging our bodies give one another. It is important to consciously keep a relaxed but upright posture and open body position to convey the message that customers are important.
Personal Space: In “normal” life American personal space between strangers is more than four feet. When we are being friendly, we step closer, and a natural inclination may be to shake hands. Not with COVID. Even fist or elbow bumps are discouraged. I noticed myself yesterday backing up as a man stepped into my 6-foot bubble. Is this an appropriate response from a customer service perspective? In light of safety protocols, I believe so. As long as all the other elements are still in place — smile, eye contact, tone of voice, posture — that small step back should just serve as a polite reminder of distance protocols.
Dealing with Difficult People: Clear guidelines are important for employees who encounter customers who don’t respond to polite requests to follow COVID guidelines — or, for that matter, any kind of transgressive behavior from customers. If we are following the guidelines above, listening carefully and responding with empathy and respect, most situations won’t escalate. However, front line workers should be able to refer people to a manager when an interaction gets sticky. That manager should take people aside and speak to them in private. Sometimes just changing the venue and personalities will help calm the situation.
The basics of customer service haven’t changed. Employees still have to be well-versed in the product or service, and focus on the customer as the most important person in the room. However, communication when wearing masks, keeping distant, and living with the stress of an ongoing pandemic are particularly challenging. We can overcome those challenges with awareness and care.
Marie consults with businesses and non-profit organizations. If you are interested in her workshops on COVID-19, workplace communication, and customer service, please email email@example.com.