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Traveling During a Pandemic: The Customer Experience is Anything But Consistent

on July 1, 2020
Resources All Customer Experience

I’ve been a road warrior for the past 30 years, traveling three to five days a week, domestically and internationally, to consult with clients and speak at events and conferences. Because of my rigorous travel schedule, I spend a lot of time interacting with the frontline folks in the travel and hospitality industry. I know what makes a great travel/guest experience and what doesn’t. This often works to the benefit of me and my clients, many of which are leading hotel, restaurant, and airline brands.

When COVID-19 hit, like most people I stopped traveling completely. My wife and I hunkered down. We had all our groceries delivered and didn’t even order meals in; whatever we needed, we kept things 100% contactless. After three months of working from home, Zooming for hours, and intense binge watching, quarantine bans began to ease. I decided to put feelers out to see if any clients would like to meet face-to-face – following all health and safety guidelines, of course. To my pleasure and surprise, I had six clients (based in the same Northeast area) excitedly agreeing within minutes.

For the first time in my career, I booked a first-class ticket. I usually get upgraded because of my status, but I didn’t want to risk being in a tightly packed coach seat for this trip. I also was adamant about getting a direct flight. Typically, my local airport has lots of options. For this trip, I had to travel to a larger airport, which is 90 minutes away. Did I mention that my flight was at the crack of dawn? Well, because of this I opted to stay at an airport hotel the night prior. And so my experience began.

The Highs Were High …

I intentionally booked a hotel promoting new sanitation standards, and the stay did not disappoint. For starters, virtual check-in was a breeze. Keyless entry to my room made the entire experience truly contactless. Had I opted to go to reception, there were plexiglass dividers between guests and staff, and stickers on the ground to space out people waiting in line. These floor stickers were also in the elevator to guide guests where to stand. Sanitizer stations were set up in the lobby and in the elevator as well. When I arrived at my room, there was a seal on the door certifying that the room had been sanitized. Inside, all toiletries were sealed in plastic. There was even a small package of antibacterial hand wipes! This hotel set the bar high – very high.

Checkout was a no-brainer, and off to the airport I went. TSA went smoothly as agents ensured travelers were distanced, and floor stickers were in use here as well. But once I passed through the metal detector and went to retrieve my carry-on bag, things went south. People were piled on top of each other waiting for bags. And not everyone was wearing a mask. I saw many, many people with masks pulled down under their chins, or with just their mouth covered and their nose exposed. The way people wore masks was truly inconsistent, and this proved to be a constant during my entire trip.

… And the Lows Were Low

Onto the plane I went. Again, some folks wore masks properly. Others didn’t. As a result, flight attendants have yet another responsibility – mask patrol. And it seems that mask wearing is as polarizing as politics and religion, making things pretty uncomfortable for airline employees. (Side note: This was a scenario I witnessed in the hotel lobbies as well. All staff wore masks, but not all the guests did. So hotel employees, whose jobs depend on creating customer loyalty, had to go beyond traditional job responsibilities and enforce their new mask-wearing rules.)

The next night, I stayed at a different hotel brand, but it was part of the same family of brands as the hotel I stayed in the night before. All these brands promote the same sanitation standards. However, at the second hotel, things were a bit different. First of all, the plexiglass dividers at reception seemed more decorative than functional. I also was assigned a room that hadn’t been officially sanitized. Upon entering and not finding the sanitization seal, I called the front desk and was told the manager would call me back. While I waited, I whipped out my own alcohol wipes (this room didn’t come with its own packet of antibacterial wipes) to clean things myself. While I was cleaning, my alcohol wipes become encased in an unbelievable amount of dust – proving the room was due not only for a deep sanitizing but also a basic cleaning. Good thing I took care of the cleaning myself because I never did hear from the manager on duty. I didn’t get angry – quite the opposite. By the time I checked out, I had grown very sympathetic to what was clearly a very skeletal staff trying to run a large full-service hotel.

Everyone is Playing by Their Own Set of Rules

As a consultant, I want to provide my clients with a thoughtful customer experience, one that they want, need, and enjoy. To ensure the CX I delivered met expectations in the COVID-19 era, I intentionally set up all of my meetings in the lobby of a hotel that was centrally located and is very well designed, even if unintentionally, for social distancing. I had established my own seating area, where I could easily be seated six feet apart from my clients. I had food and drink delivered from a local restaurant that made me confident they were following all health guidelines. I knew I was setting up a smart, safe meeting space.

When my first client arrived, someone I had worked with for 18 years, I made sure that no physical contact occurred during our greeting. I knew it would put me at risk and also put her at risk as I had just been traveling. I conducted my meetings over two days, and all went according to my socially distant plans. Until the final meeting.

This meeting was with another longtime client, someone I view as a mentor. Maybe it was the fact that I had already ripped my shelter-in-place Band-Aid off with this trip. Maybe it’s because I have great admiration for this person, but when he suggested we meet at one of his go-to restaurants, I said yes. Since my client is a regular there, lots of staff came over to chat. Some wore masks secured properly. Another wore a simple bandana. With every word, the bottom part of his “mask” went blowing in the breeze. This restaurant hadn’t been able to enact clear rules for its staff and masks.

This mirrored the sanitation inconsistencies I witnessed during my hotel stays and the disparity in social distance and mask-wearing practices in the airports. Across the board, and not just across brands, but also within brands, the CX during my trip was consistently inconsistent, and within five days of returning home, I came down with all the symptoms of COVID-19. I have now been in isolation for 11 days and have been waiting for my test results for nine.

How NOT to Wear a Face Mask

Three Tips to Creating a Consistent CX

Creating and delivering a consistent employee and customer experience isn’t just a “nice to have” anymore; it’s a “must have” if we want to protect our employees and customers and help to keep them safe and healthy.

Here are a few strategies to consider:

  1. No exceptions. I’ve talked ad nauseam in the past about the importance of your CX and how your products or services can be knocked off any time, but the experience you deliver is what will set you apart. It’s your organization’s unique fingerprint. Leaders, you must get aligned and get smart about what your organization’s unique CX needs to be in a time of pandemic and what health guidelines need to be delivered consistently and without exception. Once you are clear and aligned as a leadership team, educate your people. Engage their hearts in the “why” and their heads in the “what” and “how.” And don’t waver. Don’t make exceptions to the policies that will create a consistently safe CX. Your people need to know who your brand is, why you do what you do, and how they help bring it to life.
  2. Ensure the front line is supported. Want your gate agent, lobby concierge, or hostess to feel comfortable reminding people that they must put their mask on? Let them know you are 100% behind them. Make sure your front line knows you trust them and that you want them to make real-time decisions that best reflect the safety of all your customers. Don’t forget the importance of ensuring they understand the company’s position – the “why” behind any and all changes. Finally, be sure you’re asking your front line for their thoughts and opinions too. They are the ones dealing with guests, travelers, and customers day in and night out. They probably have some great ideas you can leverage.
  3. Use technologies available to you. When it comes to upgrading your technology, leaders are often met with teams that don’t want to do it. Yes, upgrading systems to support mobile room keys and seat selection brings its own set of complications, but just because your team isn’t excited about a technology doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adopt it. So whether you need to integrate a new mobile check-in system for your hotel or an online reservation system for your restaurant, if it’s safer for your people and your customers, do it. Just be sure your teams feel confident in using it – that starts with them understanding the “why” behind it. It’s not about the technology at all; it’s about delivering the CX needed for the time we are living in. If they feel confident in their ability to use the technology and are given time to understand why it’s beneficial for everyone, they’ll likely be more supportive.

2020 has been quite the year. A global pandemic. National uproar (long overdue) for racial equity. How we work, shop, eat, socialize – it’s all in flux. For our collective safety and well-being, leaders must always be ready to pivot and reimagine strategies in order to ensure businesses – and people – can weather the current storm and still have the stamina to handle whatever is surely brewing in the future.

What are you doing to help your people accept change? And when it comes to enacting change, how do you encourage your people to do it with a consistency that creates an effective and successful CX?

If you have strategies that are working, I would love to hear them.

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