The Importance of the Customer Experience During COVID
I got a haircut for the first time since February. I’ve been wanting to go for a while, but as time wore on, it was very clear that Covid was a virus that couldn’t simply be wished away. It is a pandemic that has undeniably required everyone to adapt collectively. If there is a silver-lining, following a few simple safety guidelines can greatly reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Whereas in March-April a haircut was a needless luxury that had to wait, over time, the idea of getting a haircut felt more comfortable as more information became available that illustrated there was a responsible way I could return to some aspects of my previous lifestyle. I’m new to Nashville so I couldn't go to a place I’ve already been, or have the benefit of a recommendation from a trusted local source. Finding a new barber for me is like a first day at a new school with no friends. Who do you sit with at lunch, and how do you decide? The process of finding a new barber reinforced my belief in the value of a satisfying customer experience. Why Covid has increased the importance in understanding how each customer thinks, feels, wants to be communicated with, and how their behaviors may have been impacted by the pandemic.
To create a successful service offering that focuses on the experiences customers want to have, a business must determine which service attributes to target for excellence and which to target for inferior performance. It may sound odd, but most successful companies choose to deliver a subset of their service poorly, in order to excel at others. These choices should be heavily informed by the needs of their customers. For example, customers may attribute convenience or kind interactions to your service brand. Customers may compare your offering favorably with competitors’ because of extended store hours, proximity, or lower prices.
Determining the service attributes to target during a pandemic should consider how much the potential customer may have embraced digital platforms for everyday life and how a digital presence can play a major role in attracting new customers. I started my search where many others do: Google. It seems so basic, but if I can’t locate contact information easily online, there is a good chance I won’t know you exist, or how to access your services. I’m not alone in that sentiment, in fact, Studies show that between 70-80% of people research a company online BEFORE visiting the small business or making a purchase with them. After a little online research, I narrowed down my ultimate choice by comparing reviews and pictures I found online. I never treat good or bad reviews as guarantees; however, reviews are important because they can paint a general picture of a business environment, or how popular your services are within an industry.
When I set out for the barbershop, I hoped it would be a long term relationship with a local business. My first impression was in hindsight my first red flag - this place was tough to find. I drove past it twice then decided to park away from the busy road to better survey the area. I finally located the small shop tucked between two larger buildings.
Despite window signage indicating they were open, the door was locked and no one was in sight. I knew I should've called ahead! That was my mistake, but on the flip side I am representative of the average customer. How many customers can the business expect to call first vs showing up during posted business hours? From the parking lot I called the number to schedule an appointment. No one answered, so I left a message and headed back home feeling like I wasted time. Upon getting back home, I got a text that asked if I wanted to schedule an appointment. I would have loved a response based on the message I left, but I replied reiterating the time i'd prefer the next day. The reply directed me to reach out to another number/barber to schedule a time with. I begrudgingly messaged the new number only to find out that day I wanted was that barber’s day off. I reached back out to the first number who indicated they would be in on Thursday (this was a Tuesday) but didn’t attempt to lock in a time. This brings us to the next important piece of customer experience: convenience. How easy or hard is it to use your service?
I’d argue that during a pandemic, where many people are actively choosing to limit public interactions and generally more sensitive on how they choose to spend money, making a service easy to use is imperative. It’s also a chance for businesses to communicate to customers the types of behaviors they prefer. For example, a robust online scheduling system would not only be convenient but it may also communicate that they don’t prioritize walk-ins. Accepting payments online while charging fees for no-shows may communicate the preferred payment method and value of timeliness. To be clear; you don’t need an advanced scheduling system to be convenient. Had the barbershop i visited kept up to date information online of their store hours or didn't require customers to bear the brunt of scheduling duties, the experience would’ve been more convenient. Maybe I missed out on the best haircuts in the city, maybe they lost a lifelong customer, we’ll never know, because what I value in the service and what they were able to provide were incompatible.
I returned to my online search. I didn’t change much in terms of what I searched for, but after finding a suitable candidate, I did make sure to call ahead.
There was an immediate and noticeable difference, someone answered the phone!
I was able to schedule an appointment the same day, about 2 hours from the current time. If this business chose to focus on convenience as an offering to excel at, they were nailing it. I didn’t have to call a different number or wait a few days for a service I was itching to pay for now. I arrived at the barbershop on time. It had a relaxed welcoming atmosphere. Everything the new barbershop so far was good. One inescapable drawback to the majority of service related businesses however, is you can't truly know what your complete experience will be until after your service has been rendered. Whereas most consumer products carry some sort of ability to return the item within a certain time period, the same ability in services is not as commonplace. As one Judge Judy would say: you can’t decide not to pay because you didn’t like it, you ordered the steak, you ate the steak, you pay for the steak! This is a long-winded way of saying I really didn’t like my haircut. There may have been a communication breakdown, but it’s not what I asked for, or intended to get.
I didn’t have a stop clock but I know it was six months of hair cut in what seemed like 5 minutes. Speed could absolutely be a competitive advantage if done skillfully, but there were areas of my hair that were overlooked that I needed to cut myself after I got home. Not cool! Feelings never lie and my optimistic view of feeling so fresh and so clean beforehand were quickly deflated with feelings of regret. This feeling washed away all the things this business did well and will be my lasting impression of the entire experience.
While my search for the perfect mix of convenience and quality in a barbershop will continue, I understand there are more important things than good looking haircuts. I honor and appreciate the barber for providing an in-person literal face-to-face service during a pandemic. The fact that they were able to attract me to their shop to try their service is a remarkable step in the right direction. I feel like many people adjusting to new lifestyles and are looking for small victories. Little things that make them feel better about the chaotic world around them. For me in that moment it was represented by a haircut. Smart businesses would do well by focusing on how their business or brand is experienced and recognizing the unique opportunity to enhance customer loyalty and provide the small victories to a population that is in need for something to feel good about.