Staff in supermarkets have been in the line of fire ever since the Coronavirus panic buying began. We are regularly hearing stories of customers treating store staff poorly, blaming them for empty shelves and new social distancing rules staff are responsible for enforcing in the store.
Having had a long history in retail and understanding how challenging some customers can be at the best of times, during my recent trip to the supermarket I arrived at the checkout ready to show the young staff member nothing but friendliness and kindness in this stressful time.
My good intentions waivered when in an unfriendly abrupt manner, she instructed “you need to pack your own bags”. Immediately I felt guilty having forgotten the latest rule and apologised profusely for putting my bags on the conveyor belt. She once again snapped at me to “move up”, my intention of being a polite friendly customer being severely tested.
Giving it one more try, I endeavoured to start a conversation saying how easy it was to forget the new rules being so different from our normal lives. She then started to soften, admitting she’d encountered many rude customers in recent days when reminding them of the new guidelines. I truly felt for her but wondered if the treatment she was receiving was in any way a result of the manner in which she introduced these rules to customers.
I desperately wanted to help so I said “someone once told me you catch more flies with honey” explaining the calmer, more polite and friendly you are the more difficult you make it for someone being nasty to you.
I am not in any way condoning rudeness or treating anyone poorly in any situation but I was certain this girl was prompting customers to react to her negativity with the negative energy she was radiating. No doubt she’d had several bad experiences which had understandably gotten her down but she was now setting herself up for every interaction to head in the same unfortunate direction.
It got me thinking that most likely these frontline staff have never been given any guidance let alone training in how to deal with difficult customers or how to diffuse heated situations. A few tips on tone of voice, remaining calm and showing empathy by finding common ground could go a long way particularly when having to ask customers to change their everyday routines.
In a time when rules are being put in place to prevent the spread of a contagious virus, the one thing that we can share and spread is a smile and basic kindness that goes both ways.
Leadership is tested in a time of crisis and can separate an average leader from a great one. Leaders play an important role in a time of uncertainty. Without strong leadership, people will become unsettled and distracted not only impacting productivity but their own mental and even physical wellbeing. Leaders must face challenges head on and lead their people through the crisis in order to come out the other side in the best shape possible.
While there are no specific steps or process to follow, there are vital areas to be attentive to when leading during trying times:
While some leaders think it’s a good idea to hold back on providing information to their teams, it is important to communicate the facts. The manner in which these facts are delivered should be considered so as not to initiate anxious reactions however, ensuring people are clear on details is much better than having them wondering and waiting, imagining worst case scenarios. Communication can prevent panic caused by uncertainty.
Listen with Empathy
Communication goes both ways. Allow people to express their concerns and acknowledge that emotions are running riot for everyone. Constructive conversations where people can share their thoughts with others facing the same challenges can be beneficial. Ignoring and stifling people’s concerns and emotions on the other hand can make them feel disconnected.
While it’s important to be open and honest about facts and allowing people to share their concerns, it is also important to remain calm and find things to be positive about. Focus on strengths, successes and small wins along the way.
Pick things to focus on and set smaller goals and check in on them frequently providing positive feedback. This way people will feel a sense of achievement and positive movement in among the negativity.
Envisage the New Beginning
While the challenges ahead are overwhelming, provide hope by visualising the other side of the crisis. This isn’t about providing false confidence or blind optimism but being proactive about the future and seeing how change can sometimes work to our advantage.
It is likely a leader will find themselves facing a great deal of pressure in a time of crisis. If they exude fear and indecisiveness and do not remain calm and appear in control, the result will be nothing but chaos.
While a leader can’t necessarily predict or control a crisis, they can help to manage the response.