The last couple of years has taught us a lot about responding to change during periods of disruption, especially when it comes to front-line customer experience (CX).  Although CX is often viewed as a supplementary task by multi-site operational managers – especially during times of disruption – there are ways to keep it on their agenda. 

When the COVID disruption hit, I was leading CX across a vast network of physical stores. I could see store operations leaders becoming very task-oriented and it became even more challenging to support a focus on CX. So we had to change our approach. Here are some of the lessons that I learned about how multi-site retail managers should adjust their agendas during disruptive times to sustain a focus on CX:

  1. Infuse more emotion into dialogues. COVID heightened consumers’ emotional state, but multi-site managers weren’t responding to this shift. We introduced the use of more emotive words like delighted, disappointed, or irritated, which evoke empathy for customers’ experiences. That included dialogues about employee recognition where we suggested using statements like, “You made your customer feel delighted because you did X, Y,  Z.” And in communications about customer feedback at the regional level, we started to talk about sentiment and topics gained from customers’ verbatim analysis. For example, “10% of customers across our region felt frustrated with our in-store signage” or “85% of yesterday’s customers were happy with our safety measures.”
  2. Look for emerging drivers. When normal life is interrupted, both customers and employees take a back-to-basics approach to certain aspects of their lives. At the start of the COVID outbreak, our analysis of verbatims identified a new key driver of “keep me safe.” This had not previously shown up as a critical driver, as most customers had taken this element for granted. We used this insight to shift some of the focus in stores from more experiential aspects such as friendliness or use of knowledge to elements of safety. For instance, we installed additional floor signage to show clear access routes and reinforce social distancing measures, placed antibacterial wipes next to payment terminals, and created external signage to set wait time expectations for customers who wanted to limit their time indoors. 
  3. Prioritise experiences with high customer impact. In times of economic disruption, multi-site managers are often asked to scale back on their spending as the pressure of a downturn cascades to the frontline. We found it useful to prioritise spending that would have a positive impact on customers’ experiences in the short-term, while deprioritising spending on initiatives that would take more time and effort for the benefit to be realised. For example, we paused a project to consolidate two streams of customer feedback into a single dashboard view and accelerated the launch of frontline training that specifically targeted the experience of vulnerable customers. The population of vulnerable people grew as a result of the pandemic. More customers needed help to access essential services than before. As a result, supporting staff to pivot to individual customer needs became a priority. 
  4. Simplify frontline employee communications. Maintaining a share of voice for CX with store teams can be challenging even at the best of times. In response to disruption from COVID, we worked hard to declutter our communications. We shifted from multiple messages to one clear, simple message line that we felt would resonate with our audience and help bring clarity to their thinking. Our message to the front line was, “Ignore your metrics, focus on customer verbatims and look for small wins.” It’s simple to understand and keeps small incremental changes front of mind. 
  5. Remember employee wellness. It’s easy to become very operationally oriented and overlook employee wellbeing, during disruptive times. But doing that is a huge missed opportunity given the very strong link between customer and employee experience.  I found it particularly valuable to ask one colleague per store to act as a well-being coordinator, a role which we defined as an Engagement Champion. These store-level employees supported colleagues with information and encouragement to foster a sense of community across the team. 


The bottom line: During times of disruption, re-orient your in-store CX programs to meet the moment.

James Scutt, XMP, is an XM Catalyst with the Qualtrics XM Institute.