A lot has been said and more will certainly be said about the year 2020 in which we all found ourselves for the first time facing a challenge that no one had really anticipated. As in most crises, in this case too, despite the attempts to prepare for crises and extremes – the shocking event that comes will always be a surprise and different from what one could imagine.
The coronavirus pandemic has not yet disappeared from the world. Here in Israel, thanks to the great vaccination campaign, it seems that we are in the final stages of the pandemic. We hope that this is really so and that we will not go back to hard times. Different countries of the world are still struggling with the virus and the consequences of morbidity and mortality, which in some places are still extensive and severe.
I was privileged to spend this difficult year as a member of the senior management of a large retail company, which not only was not harmed during the crisis, but whose business grew and flourished thanks to the characteristics of this crisis. These characteristics included staying in homes, closures, avoiding travel and events which greatly affected the consumption of food, cleaning and pharma products from supermarket and pharma chains at the expense of other sectors such as hotels, banquet halls and so on.
Moreover, I was privileged to be the one leading the service sector and customer relationship in the company, which allowed me a unique perspective in this field, and took on a different and unique meaning compared to looking at the field on normal days. If on normal days we about the importance of a customer experience in the business world, a crisis period and a state of emergency we were in a year ago and during 2020, have sharpened very different aspects of this important sphere.
The importance of service.
The crisis period has brought into focus the understanding regarding the essential role of service and customer relations as a central aspect at the core of organizational work and not as an insignificant and negligible one. If customer service is generally a company’s means to reach out to the customer’s heart and contribute significantly to building his or her trust in the company, in times of emergency, such as the coronavirus period, the place of customer care has become critical. Consumers and customers were looking for a factor to lean on and to know it could be trusted. It is not merely a technical function of supplying goods and services but a factor that is there for us in the turbulent period, when we even find it difficult to trust the government systems. The organization’s ability to distinguish itself by providing a caring service is what makes the difference between those who take advantage (in the positive sense of the word) of the situation to strengthen customer relationship systems, and those who miss this opportunity.
A moment of truth.
If on routine days we understand that the basis of our success lies in being able to be there for our customers in the moment of truth and prove to them that we are a reliable time-tested partner, crisis days like 2020 put us to the real test. In this situation we are expected to function and express our organizational heart and soul. Despite possible expectations for customers’ consideration and lowering expectations due to the circumstances, in practice the situation is the opposite. Customers feel, and rightly so – in a moment of truth you need to be there for us. Although in March and April of 2020 (when the coronavirus pandemic was in its first stages) there was also solidarity on the part of customers, in terms of understanding hardships and distress of service providers, difficulty coping with pressure and loads, this understanding was soon replaced by the expectation from service providers to make the necessary adjustments and prepare for the new world. The grace period ended rather quickly, and customers expected us to adapt ourselves, increase the supply of services and products and be there for them, especially in difficult and challenging days. As in any relationship, it is measured all the time, but its importance and criticality are tested precisely in moments of truth.
Much has been said about the growth of the digital world and the Internet and the leap made by many organizations around the world parallel to the leap that had been planned for years, which actually happened in one fell swoop in 2020. Indeed, even at Shufersal, online activity jumped during this year and expanded to enormous dimensions reaching about 3 billion shekels, which in itself reflects activity on the scale of a large independent company. However, the main insight on the matter stems not only from the impressive number, but from the ability to achieve it. The ability to expand the service to such a significant extent in such a short period of time, stemmed primarily from the organizational measures that have been taken in recent years by the company in order to lay significant infrastructure for which momentous scaling was performed in 2020. Yet, as was mentioned, no one before February 2020 could have predicted that a global pandemic would start and force people to be locked up in their homes for months, and thus lead to huge increases in demand for online services. However, our assessment was that the online field would continue to grow significantly in the coming years, and therefore technological, logistical and service infrastructure was laid in the company, which enabled the remarkable growth that actually occurred during this year. There is no way to expect a huge jump in activity due to the outbreak of a crisis unless the company lays the right infrastructure long before the outbreak. It is the company’s ability to anticipate its main fields of activity in which it will expand and deepen its capabilities, that makes it possible to make the big leap. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic is an exogenous factor that has led to tremendous growth in demand, yet in order for us to do business successfully, mere demand is not enough, a proper ability is also required to make the right supply available so that supply and demand curves meet at the right point.
The critical importance of the organization’s consistency in being able to produce a positive customer experience has always stood out to me as a crucial success factor. However, the days of the crisis have further demonstrated to what extent consistency is a key factor for the customer’s ability to believe and trust the service provider. To those who felt abandoned these days it was very difficult to return to the previous situation afterwards. Moments of crisis produce experiences, good and bad, that are engraved in the consumer’s conscious or unconscious memory. The importance of being consistent and systematic and not producing accidental and anecdotal experiences has greatly sharpened during the days of crisis. A customer-focused organization is one that consistently and systematically operates in a way that gives the customer a good experience. This is the secret of success in daily routine, and even more so in times of emergency.
This type of crisis poses dilemmas for business leaders, which always exist but become more expressed and discussed in such days. An example of this is the significant dilemma we faced between closing online services to new customers in order to focus on our existing customer base and succeed in providing them with a reasonable service or expand the services to the general public as much as possible at a cost in compromising existing service quality. Normally, my view on the subject is clear – the treatment of existing clients should be preferred before introducing new clients. I always say that it is better to plug the hole in the bucket than to put more water in it and allow all the water to run out. However, in an emergency in which we were in those days, we realized that we also had a national responsibility – to allow food delivery to homes or as wide a customer base as possible. As we said in those days, the service basically consisted in its existence and not in its quality. This, of course, is contrary to our regular worldview. In practice, we have indeed greatly expanded the volume of new customers, while realizing that increasing capacity has a price in terms of quality of service. The balance point varies between routine days, so any increase in the volume of activity should be considered if it comes at the expense of quality, as opposed to emergency days where the main discussion is about the continuity of food supply to ensure food security for the Israeli public. the service basically consisted in its existence and not in its quality. This, of course, is contrary to our regular worldview. In practice, we have indeed greatly expanded the volume of new customers, while realizing that increasing capacity has a price in terms of quality of service. The balance point varies between routine days, so any increase in the volume of activity should be considered if it comes at the expense of quality, as opposed to emergency days where the main discussion is about the continuity of food supply to ensure food security for the Israeli public. the service basically consisted in its existence and not in its quality. This, of course, is contrary to our regular worldview. In practice, we have indeed greatly expanded the volume of new customers, while realizing that increasing capacity has a price in terms of quality of service. The balance point varies between routine days, so any increase in the volume of activity should be considered if it comes at the expense of quality, as opposed to emergency days where the main discussion is about the continuity of food supply to ensure food security for the Israeli public.
Do not decide for me.
As part of our dealing with the enormous congestion resulting from unprecedented demand for online services, we have faced challenges of significant lack of spot availability of products due to shortages. Suppliers, as well as retailers, were unable to fill the shelves and warehouses at the same rate that customers were willing to consume. It was really an extreme and extraordinary situation. To ensure a reasonable supply of products and significantly increase the scope of service, we invented a solution we called “the quick basket”. This basket is a reserve of about 150 products (out of a variety of thousands of products that is usually available on the website), one from each category, from which customers can choose products with 100% availability and faster delivery. The idea behind this solution was that in an emergency, when people are in real fear of leaving their houses, they will be ready to ‘compromise’ on the brand of yogurt or delicacy they will consume as long as they receive it for sure as part of the order. Thus, we thought, we could ensure a reliable supply of products and improve the operational efficiency, in a way that would allow to increase the volume of activity and prevent shortages. We quickly realized that the said solution was irrelevant. Customers just did not want it. The message from the customers was: although we are in an emergency situation, we will not agree to accept products that do not match exactly what we want. Operational efficiency and the desire to ensure full acceptance of the products are important, yet it is more important to provide the customer with the products he wants.
One of the great things that can be learned from the 2020 crisis is how much humility we need to foster in understanding our ability to influence the world. The same is true of our management perception and our confidence along the way. We should all do our best to plan and prepare for the future, but also to take into account that many things are bigger than us and are not within our scope of influence. No matter how good, smart, and professional we become, the forces that affect the whole world, are oftentimes bigger than us, and it is important to remind ourselves of this from time to time. One small virus has changed the lives of all of us, personally and professionally.
From 3 service centers to 500 service centers.
Remote work is of course a significant and prominent issue during this year. In the field of service, however, the complexity has increased significantly. Service representatives are not high-tech programmers. The importance of the service personnel’s togetherness, support, connection and feedback was clearly revealed during this year. On the one hand, we achieved great accomplishments – in a short time we moved from managing 3 service centers (1 at the company’s headquarters and 2 outsourced) to managing de facto 500 service centers. Every customer’s home has turned into a customer service center. Everywhere our representative sat he had to set up a sort of a “center” with all the systems and other means. The complexity was of course immense and this decision, which was inevitable, exacted a significant price. Along with the great achievement that comes with the ability to move quickly to work from home, we now understand that in the field of service representatives, there is a great priority for work from a workplace and not from home. Productivity is different, motivation is different and the connection to the brand and organization is different. It is good to know that this possibility is available and that we are able to do so, but as much as it is up to us, we are working to get the service representatives back to work from the service centers. motivation is different and the connection to the brand and organization is different. It is good to know that this possibility is available and that we are able to do so, but as much as it is up to us, we are working to get the service representatives back to work from the service centers. motivation is different and the connection to the brand and organization is different. It is good to know that this possibility is available and that we are able to do so, but as much as it is up to us, we are working to get the service representatives back to work from the service centers.
My torch bearers.
There is no doubt that the service providers in the vital organizations, those who operated almost throughout the year, came to work in supermarkets, logistics warehouses, service centers and other workplaces that were required to operate to continue to allow a normal life for the Israeli public during the pandemic are our heroes. They are the ones who were at the forefront and now they are returning from this war to normal life which is returning to our common joy. One has to remember the tremendous contribution of these service providers. There is sometimes a tendency to see them as transparent people. They are neither the heroic doctors who fought the pandemic in the coronavirus wards, nor the warriors who returned from the battle with a commendation. These are “ordinary” people who left their families at home, including children, came to work, taking a considerable personal risk of exposure to the public on days when a pandemic was raging. These people are worthy of recognition and gratitude, and in the spirit of the upcoming Independence Day, they deserve to be honored and, as for me, they even deserve to bear and light a torch.
The days of pandemic are like other emergencies of war, storm or any other extreme situation, and much can be learned from them about ourselves, our customers and life in general. During the crisis it sometimes seems difficult and threatening but in retrospect it is a chain of experiences and events, which allow us to learn and rebuild, grow and develop.
The same is true of the world of service. Today we seem to understand more and more the depth inherent in customer relationship management, as an ongoing relationship, which especially in times of emergency is tested and measured, but when managed properly and consistently, it can emerge strengthened and even better off than before. May we enjoy good days of health and routine and have a privilege to continue to provide service unclouded by the shadow of epidemics.