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5 Ways to Deliver Better Customer Service During a Pandemic

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The security of the familiar in our lives has quickly been overpowered by concerns around safety, rendering many of the ways we regularly do business either much more difficult or sometimes even prohibited altogether. 

When the pandemic first hit, you, like us, may have been forced to drastically alter both what you offer, as well as how you offer it to your customers, with safety being the primary concern for all involved. Perhaps you experienced a few, if not all of these shifts: adapting work schedules to accommodate new needs at home, implementing stricter sanitation measures, limiting indoor capacity, creating new systems for carryout and delivery, relying more on phone/web to take orders and offer customer service. (Speaking of which, now would be a great time to focus on the service you give over the phone and in writing! But I digress…

Back in March of this year, ZingTrain went from being an in-person training company dabbling with online learning, to exclusively doing virtual training almost overnight! And although we’ve completely changed the way we do business, the most important thing we can do is continue to give our customers great service. 

However, the definition of great service has undeniably shifted with each of us now facing challenges and emotions we’ve never contended with before. It’s now more important than ever to weave compassion and humanity into each and every interaction we have with a customer. Really listen to them. Make eye contact. Smile at them behind your mask – it will make a difference, we promise. And if you’re on the phone with a customer, smile then, too. It works wonders, you’ll see! 

Check out five of the best ways we know to deliver better customer service during the pandemic:

  1. Make it easy for your customers to buy from you.

There’s no denying it, the pandemic is making almost every part of our lives a little (or a lot) more difficult right now. How can you adapt your service to meet this changing reality?

Focus on creating the best, most hassle-free customer shopping experience possible. Make it as easy (alarmingly easy, even!) as you can for customers to buy from you. Let your customers know how they can have a safe and rewarding buying experience.  Perhaps you achieve this with clear, easy-to-spot signage giving customers a “roadmap” for how to safely shop in your space.  Is there a designated traffic flow that needs to be followed? Put arrows on the ground, hang signs in obvious places to let people know where to go. Put markers at 6-foot intervals so customers know where they can safely stand if they’re waiting to check out, or if they’re waiting to get into your space.

Overcommunicate! We’ve heard this over and over (and over!) again from clients and our fellow Zingerman’s businesses alike. This will also ease any anxiety new customers may have if they’re shopping in your space for the first time and don’t know their way around.

Another way to make the in-person shopping experience easy and less stressful for customers is to designate a greeter, or someone they’ll see when they first walk into the space. You can think of this person as friendly air-traffic control. Greeters say “Hello!” using the 10-6 Rule (more on that below!) and welcome customers to your space. If your business frequently has lines to get in, or if you’re only permitted to allow a designated number of people inside at a time, greeters can give customers clear instructions on how to safely wait. 

If you’re offering carryout or curbside service, where should customers go to pick up their order once they arrive? How do they let you know they’ve arrived? Adding language to your online ordering system and in the parking lot with easy-to-follow instructions for pickup – how to get ahold of you and where to wait – works wonders. We’ve heard of businesses that have designated carryout spots clearly marked for customers who would like to place an order. To signal that they’re ready to order, all they have to do is turn their flashers on and a staff member can approach their car to assist!

Here’s another important question: Have you let customers know how they can safely shop with you on your website? How about on your social media accounts? Are there Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) you can answer and put somewhere that’s easily accessible for customers who are considering shopping with you? Can you film a short video walking customers through your space, giving them a glimpse into what their shopping experience could look like? If so, put that on your website somewhere that’s easily accessible. And don’t forget to post it to your social media accounts!

  1. Follow the 10-6 Rule (Formerly 10-4 Rule)

One of our most well-loved tips for giving great service to customers is the 10-4 Rule, which states:

Anytime you’re within 10 feet of a customer, make eye contact and smile. Within 4 feet, greet them verbally.

However, to adjust for a CDC-approved distance for staying safe, it’s now the 10-6 Rule:

Anytime you’re within 10 feet of a customer, make eye contact and smile. Within 6 feet, greet them verbally.

The 10-6 Rule ensures that every single person who enters your “orbit” is acknowledged and greeted. Never underestimate the power of eye contact and a smile, even under a mask! Especially under a mask. And don’t forget, the 10-6 Rule works through glass, as well. It’s that powerful!

A few of the many, many things to love about this customer service tool is that you can start using it right away, managers can share it with their team and ask them to use it, and a business can use it as a clear performance expectation. Watch it work wonders for you!

  1. Remember that words are powerful.

In his book, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Douglas Adams says, “Words used carelessly, as if they did not matter in any serious way, often allowed otherwise well-guarded truths to seep through.”

The words we use are powerful. They can reveal unexpressed truths and hidden biases. They can unite people one minute, and divide them the next!

Consider the word “unprecedented.” Perhaps you, like me, have developed an involuntary physical reaction to this word over the last nine months. My reaction usually looks something like, “Ugh, noooooooo, stoooppp!” followed by slowly beating my head on the table (or nearest hard surface). Words are powerful! I have a much more civil (read: less extreme) response to “difficult” or “wild” when being used to describe this time.

Although not specific to pandemic times, there are words that tend to deflate the customer experience. For example, if a customer says “Thank you!” and you reply with “No problem!”, you’re subtly implying that the customer’s request might actually have been considered a problem at one point. Not good! Instead, you could reply with “My pleasure!” 

Another example that’s common in interactions with customers is “Anything else?/Is that all?” after they’ve asked a question or decided on a purchase. Instead, try “What else can I do for you today?” It’s a subtle difference, but the latter takes on a more helpful, generative tone. It implies that you have the time to help them, and puts the ball in the customer’s court to decide that they’re all set, without feeling rushed or like they’re bothering you.

What words or expressions can you think of that leave you feeling icky or irritated while you’re shopping? What words positively affect you right now? How can you work to incorporate them more into the service you’re giving? 

  1. Leaders: Give extra support to your staff!

We’ve spent this particular blog journey together exploring how to give great service to customers, but let’s take a few steps back and ask – Who are your customers? Sure, they’re the lovely people purchasing your products/services. But what if you regarded your co-workers and if you’re a manager, your staff, as your customers, as well? Doesn’t it make sense that providing great service to them is all but guaranteed to ensure that they’ll give great service to your customers? At Zingerman’s, it’s our belief that the service we give our customers will never be better than the service we give to one another.

And staff need a lot of extra support right now in order to continue giving great service. Help them help your customers. How can you keep them motivated and energized? 

Gamify service and reward!

Although it may seem like a pandemic is a strange time for fun and games, it may actually be the perfect time. Life feels heavy at the moment, and adding some levity with gameplay can both motivate team members and let them know how much they’re appreciated. Zingerman’s Bakehouse, for example, offers a weekly monetary prize (a gift card to their shop worth $50) to the staff member, as voted by their peers, who is doing an exemplary job of social distancing.

Offer flexibility, when possible.

Here at ZingTrain, we’ve figured out how to operate almost exclusively from our respective home “offices” i.e. our  kitchen tables, front porches, guest bedrooms, etc. In fact, studies show that 42% of the workforce is now working from home full-time. And it would appear that the option of doing so is here to stay, long after we make it through the pandemic.

While we acknowledge that many businesses are structured in such a way where remote work isn’t possible, are there opportunities to offer compressed work weeks to staff? Can certain tasks be done outside of conventional business hours? 

Check in.

If you’re managing people, be sure to check in with each of them individually on a consistent basis. This is important even when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic, but is all-the-more critical now with competing priorities at work and at home. Katie Frank, ZingTrain’s Managing Partner, agrees that regular check-ins with team members are “critical to not only check in on how their work is going, but also to know how they are mentally and emotionally holding up in this uncertain time.”

Since going 100% virtual with our business back in March, ZingTrain staff members now almost exclusively work from home. Without the face-to-face time in the office, Frank says that “creating regular face time is very important, especially when working remotely, as we can all feel pretty disconnected.” 

  1. Go the extra mile.

Going the extra mile is the third step in Zingerman’s 3 Steps for Giving Great Service, and it’s the favorite step of many for good reason. After you’ve figured out what the customer wants (Step One) and gotten it for them accurately, politely and enthusiastically (Step Two), it’s time to go the extra mile for them (Step Three).

At Zingerman’s we define “going the extra mile” as doing something for the customer that they didn’t ask for. A few examples of this right now could be including a sample of a new product in a to-go order for the customer to sample, offering to call a competitor to find out if they offer a product/service that you don’t or are out of, or including a card with a favorite recipe using an item the customer is purchasing. An extra mile doesn’t have to be big or cost a lot to make an impact! Anything that leaves the customer remarking what a great experience they had is the goal. 

In fact, I had my own such experience with Zingerman’s Roadhouse close to fifteen years ago. Extended family was in town, and my parents wanted to treat everyone to a nice dinner out at an Ann Arbor institution! I was coming down with the flu (lucky me!), and so I wasn’t able to join that evening. With only a few delicious bites left of their plates of barbecued meats and sumptuous macaroni and cheese, they let their server know they were looking to bring something home to their sick daughter. In addition to the meal-to-go, the server gave them a big bowl of soup, on the house, and wrote, “Get well soon, Emily!” on the to-go container. I couldn’t believe it! It cost the Roadhouse next to nothing, and here I sit now, seventeen years later, telling the story for the millionth time!

If you’re looking for more extra mile ideas, here are a few from around the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses:

  • Offer (sanitized) blankets to customers seated outdoors
  • Include a disposable face mask in all to-go bags
  • If your business has seating for guests,  include a stand where they can hang their facemasks while they enjoy your goodies!

The Bottom Line

Delivering customer service that is both helpful and delights is very possible during a pandemic! In fact, deliberately focusing on how to better serve your customers is more important now than ever before. Luckily, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money to begin making improvements right away. Start with one of the ideas above and see what happens – we’re confident it’ll make a difference. We’d love to hear which one you choose. Or share with us how you’re delivering better service right now!  Shoot us an email at [email protected]

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