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Managing the impact of loadshedding on customer experience in your small business

By Liezel Jonkheid, Director at the Consumer Psychology Lab

There has not been a single day over the past few months that we have not had loadshedding, in various stages. It has become a national (loathed) pastime to plan our lives and businesses around loadshedding timetables – from cooking dinner, to eating out, to what time a production run can happen to navigating chaotic traffic congestion to collect stock and make deliveries. In true South African style, even in the darkest of times, we joke about how South Africa has become one of the most romantic countries in the world as we eat by candlelight every night. The constant hum of generators seems to be perfectly normal in our current wretched dystopia.

By far, small business owners have been hardest hit by the debilitating disruptions to their service delivery, the increased costs to doing business and strain of keeping the daily operations going, customers served and people in much needed jobs. While bigger businesses may have the ability to put in back-up power and run generators, its typically not so easy for smaller businesses to simply absorb these extra costs.

This does not even begin to address the widespread malaise and depressed psyche of South Africans as they grapple with massive uncertainty, dwindling consumer confidence, political instability and seriously constrained spending. Top of mind for most South Africans right now is what it will mean for life and business if the grid moves to catastrophic stages of loadshedding, or worse, a collapse of the grid.

How does loadshedding affect the sustainability of business, especially relating to customer service and experience?

Within this stressful environment, as a business owner, you require empathy to support your staff to be productive and continue to serve customers amidst uncertainty, frustration and apprehension.

While the operational and financial impact of loadshedding on business is clear, an overlooked aspect is the impact that it is having on customer service and customer experience – and the long term implications for business sustainability. What happens if those customers leave, and go elsewhere and never come back? How do you maintain service levels in an environment where so much is seemingly out of your control? Given just how overwhelming the impact of loadshedding is on every single aspect of business, it begs the question – are we losing sight of the customer as the driving force of business?   

A recent article in “My customer”, the case study of Barns and Noble: How CX turned around its fortunes”, sheds some light on how important it is to stay as close as possible to the customer, especially in the face of external and existential factors threatening the survival of a business. In their particular case, the digitisation of books and the likes of Amazon encroaching on the book reading audience threatened to close their doors, but in a fascinating turn around, this 137-year old book retailer is back on track with a prospective 30 new stores about to open in 2023 – with a renewed focus on customers’ needs, coupled with a decentralised approach to empower each local branch, Barns and Noble is a case study in the true value of CX in the toughest of times.

In the context of loadshedding’s impact on CX and customer service, small business owners must consider how customers are impacted too, and what can be done to creatively redesign your roadmap to ensure that you retain and grow your customer base and plan the way forward. It is important to understand the impact across three key areas namely customers, employees and business operations: 

Some of the effects of loadshedding on customers, employees and small business owners include:

 CUSTOMERSEMPLOYEESSME OWNERS
Functional frustrations


 
Unable to complete shopping or conduct business.

Additional travel time to retailers and other businesses, and frustration.

Poor customer service due to staff despondency.

Delayed delivery, stock shortages and spoilage.  
Getting to work, navigating through traffic with no lights working.

Getting the family ready in the morning and out on time. Meal preparations in the evening after work with loadshedding.

Scheduling in housekeeping chores such as washing/cleaning within time slots.

Children studying with no power. Security concerns and noise and air pollution from generators.
Staff
Flexible work scenarios – suddenly work hours are no longer during business hours, but when loadshedding provides a reprieve.

Customers
Changing customer needs demand that business models need to shift too.


Additional financial burdenHigh inflation and rising costs passed on to consumers.

High cost of mobility – transport and cost of fuel.    
When working from home, additional costs have to be incurred to remain productive such as UPS, generators or even huge investments in solar PV systems to power homes.

Increased costs of living and strained household budgets.  
Cost and operations Cost to operate – huge investments to continue powering the business and no ROI in these capital outlays.

Cash flow constraints due to additional, unbudgeted costs and lost sales/trade.

Ability to grow business and profits is strained by the increased cost of doing business.

Disrupted service delivery and unhappy customers.

More pressure on digital transformation and associated costs.

Challenges in supply-chain and business continuity.
Emotional stress  Pent up frustration and low tolerance for poor service delivery, very short fuses!

Increased desire for ease of doing business (frictionless).Respect for time.  
Fear of business not surviving and losing their jobs.

Anxiety to manage all daily tasks in out-of-control time slots.

Anxiety around financial burden and uncertainty.

Frustration and despondency around the national power crisis.
Customers
More emotionally volatile customers.

Staff
Staff morale is taking a hammering and challenges are impacting work performance and leading to poor service delivery that is not always within the ambit of control.

The survival kit for small business to combat loadshedding’s darkness

Even in the toughest of times, small business owners can prepare better and ensure excellent customer experiences no matter what. In fact, it is in the face of adversity that there is an opportunity to show creativity and resilience that your customers will notice and appreciate, and that builds loyalty long after the lights come back on.

Step 1:  Regroup

Do not allow yourself or your team to get lost in a spiral of despondency and frustration. It is important to take a step back and create space for open conversations where your team feel supported, think together and most of all, innovate. Generally, when the going gets tough, people will always focus on survival, often not considering how to creatively work around the challenges. Regrouping the mindset of the team, taking stock of the realities and possibilities together may open new windows of opportunity. Don’t only focus on the problem and not the solution.

There is a wise saying that goes: “energy flows where attention goes”. A good example from our consulting experience is to lay it on the table; to unpack the realities, in other words, give emotions airtime. Acknowledge how every staff member is affected before a more positive and creative space can be created. Then brainstorm ideas around how to improve service delivery (and customer experience) around the major challenges. Prioritise actions that will impact most on the employees to deliver good customer service that will create the desired experience. Good, consistent and positive customer experience unlocks the key for survival.

On a practical level, identify the major pain (friction) points for customers and consider the operational challenges that prevent optimal service delivery. Consider what is threatening customer service delivery most, and prioritise possible actions to overcome or compensate with initiatives that will leave customers either unaffected during power cuts or impressed by the proactive effective measures taken.

Examples:

– Offer discounts or vouchers for future purchases as a way of compensating for any inconvenience or poor service delivery caused by loadshedding.

– Set up online ordering systems so that orders don’t need to be placed in person during an outage.

– Send email alerts with updates of how customer’s orders or appointments may be affected.

– Ensure staff are aware of the daily power schedules and actions to take, to proactively meet and exceed customer needs or challenges.

– Design a unique or improved approach to address customers’ most frustrating challenges. One simple example – at the height of the pandemic when getting a grocery order done online was near impossible due to the massive demand, with one week waiting periods at least for delivery, one particular retail store let all their customers know that they could order all their groceries via telephone, whatsapp or e-mail and they would pack, prepare and sanitise their goods for them, and bring it to their waiting vehicle in the parking lot, along with the sanitised payment machine, without the customer once having to leave their vehicle. It was an exceptional show of empathy and a touch of humanity that scored that store owner heaps of loyalty that endures to this day.

Step 2:  Empathise!

There has never been a stronger need for empathy as a business skill than right now. Empathy requires the ability to understand the context of others and respond appropriately. Empathy for your employee’s challenges must be balanced with empathy for customers. Not only have customers and staff also become despondent, they are fighting their own battles – be it financially, socially or even service delivery.

Another saying, “charity begins at home”, is very important in this context, hence the “regroup” in Step 1 of this survival kit. Give your team a platform to be heard, to be understood and an opportunity to become part of the solution. Empowering your team by appreciating their potential, despite challenges, holds the key to them owning the solutions, which means better customer engagement that is fundamental to a sustainable business, even when the odds are highly stacked.

To build empathy for customers, business owners and their teams need to look at customers through different glasses. Understanding their needs within this context provides the cues for improving service delivery within this new local challenge. Talking to customers about how to align service delivery to improve their experience should be the task of everyone interacting with customers. Opportunities to share these insights with each other, as well as generate ideas around how friction can be removed, becomes the basis of redesigning your customers’ experience. Not all ideas require huge investment.

Step 3: Empower frontline staff

Your frontline staff are the ears and the eyes of your business. They see how customers interact with your products, how they move around in your store, how they behave, what they say and do, what they complain about, what they love, what they hate – use this wealth of information and insights in a more formalised way. Create solutions around the key challenges observed by your frontline staff relating to customer service, but even more so around customer experience.

Step 4:  Train your people in the fundamentals of great customer service

In challenging times like these, the only way to ensure your long-term survival as an SME is to have a constant flow of satisfied customers – and this will only be possible when their interaction with your team is a pleasant and memorable experience. You cannot leave this vital part of your business success to fate or chance. Don’t assume that your staff will know how to deliver great customer service, or what great customer service experiences are composed off.

Invest in the training of your staff with an affordable, self-paced online training course that will help you and your team master the most important skills of customer service, and at the same time empower personal growth and development. It’s highly affordable for any small business, and is designed as a self-paced, online skills course specifically for anyone who works in a customer service role, providing a progressive, systematic way to understand what exactly great customer service entails, and how to develop the skills, knowledge and capabilities in this essential role. Its quick, its focused and to the point and will empower your staff to cope with the demands of delivering great customer service, even in the most trying of circumstances.

Small business owners have been hard hit by the power crisis and customer experience is bound to be impacted if you lose focus on it. By taking proactive measures and creating contingency plans tailored specifically towards mitigating potential losses associated with loadshedding, small businesses will be better equipped to mitigate against its disruptive nature. Think ahead, plan creatively as a team, empathise and innovate and this too shall pass, like the pandemic.

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