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At this point, we’ve spent months dealing with COVID-19 and most businesses have reopened in varying degrees. Along with this, we’ve seen a variety of health and safety policies put into place. Some brands have clearly led the way while others seem to be playing the “wait and see” game. Whatever your path, one thing is for certain: this is an opportunity to create a long-term competitive advantage. You can differentiate yourself from your competitors by taking a clear and compelling stance that says you’re putting the safety of employees and customers first.

So we ask you: what are you going to do?

Health and Safety Above All

We know it can feel like there’s no easy answer, especially when you have multiple audiences to consider, including your employees, customers, and investors. But the answer is actually quite simple: you must be confident, clear, and unwavering in your position – health and safety above all else.

Yes, this will likely send some customers (and possibly employees) to competitors who have a different stance, but most will stay. And those who do will reward you with their loyalty and tell their like-minded friends about your commitment. They’ll commit to you during this era of COVID-19 and for the long term, even if your products and services cost more. They’ll pay more, if need be, because they’ll see the value in how you’re prioritizing their health and safety, and that of your employees.

Now is the time to look at your organizational purpose, beliefs, and values and to go the extra mile to embed the right behaviors and processes into your culture, as this will translate directly to the employee experience and customer experience you’re delivering.

If you’re willing to put that stake in the ground, there are a couple steps you need to take:

  1. Go public with your position and do it in a big way.
  2. Create clear expectations for your customers and stand behind your people for all the turns, twists, and bumps in the road . . . because there will be bumps.

Three Must-Do Tactics to Come Out on Top

#1: Go Public, Be Bold, and Be Consistent

This is a basic yet incredibly essential action, and you can’t be wary, hesitant, or on the fence. Your CEO needs to deliver this message to employees via a video, town hall Zoom meeting, or another medium that is impactful and conveys the importance and commitment behind the initiative – don’t just email a press release or a written policy. Once employees know the policy, share this message with the public too. It’s essential that everyone is crystal clear on mask-wearing and other safety procedures, and that this is a mandate coming straight from the most senior leaders. And everyone – customers and employees – needs to know these policies are non-negotiable.

To help people know the company is united, make sure this message is exemplified by leaders at all levels. Plan regular updates for employees and customers so they hear from you (not pieces of paper) about new policies and the continued commitment.

Leading organizations are already making their public decrees and are not bashful. Here are a few examples of companies we believe have set the standard super high:

  • Delta Air Lines has been one of the most vocal brands to tout how it’s changing policy to support health and safety, including limiting the number of travelers on every flight and mandating masks. In fact, the airline has already banned 100 people from flying with them in the future (they have a list!) because they didn’t wear a mask. CEO Ed Bastian has also stayed in regular contact with customers, emailing them weekly to reinforce the actions the airline is taking to keep employees and passengers safe.
  • Marriott is another brand whose leadership is visibly supporting safety and mask-wearing in its hotels. Executive Chairman, Bill Marriott, announced the company’s Commitment to Clean in May and President and CEO, Arne Sorenson, is the face and voice behind recent messaging that mandates guests wear masks.
  • Starbucks has also emerged as a leader in health and safety, as CEO Kevin Johnson announced the brand was adopting mask-wearing without waiting for a federate mandate: “We just decided it’s time for us to adopt this and require customers to wear masks across the country.”

These brands, and many others, are establishing new rules in pursuit of safety for their people and their customers, knowing that not everyone will be supportive. It’s bold and it will set them apart and create unwavering customer loyalty.

#2: Establish Guiding Principles for Your Organization

Once your CEO has shared your organization’s new policies, employees and customers need a clear understanding of the rules and principles your organization is committed to. Being clear on the “hardlines,” “guidelines,” and “no lines” ensures your people feel confident in what’s expected of them each day. Customers need this same specificity, so engage them in compelling and easy-to-understand ways to share procedures.

  • Sephora created a film to educate customers on what to expect when shopping in stores when they reopened, as well as the reason behind specific changes.
  • Cost Plus World Market enacted an official mask-wearing rule that they announced to customers via a visual email that linked to a web page about in-store safety.
  • Walmart has recently created the new role of health ambassador to discuss the mask requirement with customers and to work with customers who don’t have a mask to find an acceptable alternative. By giving these employees a title and their own recognizable uniform, and by providing role-specific training, they’re elevating the role of the employee in keeping everyone in the store safe.

#3: Show Employees You Back Them Up

Leaders, this is where things get tough. You need to acknowledge that your frontline team, the folks who already had the incredibly important job of delivering memorable experiences that encourage customers to remain loyal, now has a new but equally important task of enforcing COVID-19-related rules. While Walmart (see tip #2) has employees to remind customers of new rules, and brands like Whole Foods have publicly declared their people a top priority, things are bound to go awry. Just this week, some companies started to back off their stance, saying they would not turn customers away for not wearing a mask (except for Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines, who both turned planes around last week to deposit passengers who refused to comply back at the gate).

Your people need to know you have their back in these situations. Here are five actions to take to set your people up for success and show your commitment to them:

  • Invest in your managers by giving them the knowledge and skills to train and coach their frontline teams through these new scenarios. Managers need to know how to set frontline employees up for success and coach them through difficult situations. McDonald’s is putting a new mask policy into place and setting its teams up for success with de-escalation training.
  • Ensure customers understand your brand’s stance. You might go the way of World Market and use a simple graphic to convey your rules or share a video from your CEO. However you choose to do it, your message has to come across loud and clear.
  • Empower and equip the front line (and customers too) for success by stocking each store with free masks to give customers. Many brands are making this commitment, and it’s a small but simple way to avoid a conflict or a disappointed shopper who simply left his or her mask behind.
  • Create new roles (like Walmart) dedicated to health and safety instead of assuming managers and frontline teams can just add this to their current list of responsibilities.
  • Empower people to think and act like owners. Frontline employees must feel confident in making real-time decisions that support a brand’s current health and safety policies. You need corporate guidelines, not hard lines, that give frontline teams knowledge of what to do and the leeway to make adjustments in real-time. Costco appears to be doing this well, as its front line isn’t shying away from conflict. We’ve all heard of the Costco employee, Tison, who went viral after he refused to be swayed on the company’s policy. A similar situation occurred during this Costco shopper’s meltdown, after which the shopper was fired from his job at an insurance company because of his aggressive behavior.

Is your organization establishing new health and safety rules as a result of COVID-19?

Does your organization have a point of view on creating customer confidence while also supporting the needs of your people? Do you need help getting other leaders in your company to see how and why to take a strong stance? We’d love to discuss this challenge to see what strategies you might not have considered yet. Let’s talk.

August 4, 2020

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