Amid the reconfiguration to a new world order, the shocking infections and death statistics, the job losses and the threats to the livelihoods that have been ushered in by Covid 19, customer experience is one critical component that has almost become a luxury as service providers and customers learn to live with the deadly virus.

Under normal circumstances the ordinary Zimbabwean regardless of age, gets into a bank or shop transacts and leaves, whether they will be satisfied or not is another story for another day but at least they would have accessed the product or service. Ever since the lockdown was introduced as a measure to curb the spreading of the novel Covid 19 virus, the restrictions have seen customers queueing to access basic products and services.

The average Zimbabwean is now forced to endure hours in long winding queues in a quest to access the most basic of services. While service providers had made strides in integrating customer experience into their systems, the standards have sharply dropped and accessing basic services has become a mission. Businesses have for long emphasized on touch points, ensuring satisfaction prior, during and post their interaction with a customer.

Adjusting to the lockdown restrictions has resulted in most companies diverting their energy towards optimizing digital touch points. The relationships that businesses had cultivated with their customers over time are seriously under threat as the transition to less human interaction continues. The emotional side of the customer needs is largely suffering as the warmth and confidence that is brought by the human touch is being overtaken by assumptions that the attendant on the other side of the line will satisfactorily attend to the customer’s needs.

In the instances where the customers have to access the services in person, one has to think long and hard before taking the journey to the service providers. Although everyone in the queue will be clad in a face mask, social distancing is seldom observed. Some pro-active businesses have given security guards the authority to enforce social distancing but the manner in which they apply themselves leaves a lot to be desired, they bark instructions and have little respect for the customer making the first touch point a nightmare.

Like most organizations, financial institutions such as banks are operating with skeletal staff dragging the whole banking process. Customers are lumped up in one queue regardless of what service they want to access, the security guards do not entertain questions and any attempt to enter the banking hall is received by a highly controlled electronic entrance that will send the customer back to the que with their tail in between their legs. The situation is no different in the retail sector where all the touch points are a frustrating process.

Prior to the pandemic, businesses in developed countries had made strides in fully operationalising their digital platforms. Online businesses are thriving and customer experience continues to be refined. Back home, strides have been made with some banks having gone paperless some years back, however, some transactions demand that customers attend physically and the financial institutions can improve the customer experience by opening more counters and serving them quickly. Covid 19 maybe spreading like a wildfire but surely the number of people transacting at the banks have not changed hence the need for them to ensure every touch point brings satisfaction to clients who are stressed, afraid and longing for a dignifying experience.

For the retail sector online platforms and deliveries are the panacea to the frustrating experiences at the shopping centres. Some big brands in the manufacturing sector responded to the new order by developing online platforms and deliveries making life easy for the customer who just have to click the button. Food outlets have probably recorded an increase in sales from dial-a-delivery.

Unlike the pre-Covid 19 era where such services had a limited radius, the situation has since changed and the scope has expanded. The service provider is now making efforts to reach the customer who has movement restrictions.

Due to the lockdown, most people have more free time on their hands and online is where business is happening. Customers and suppliers are converging in real-time, competition is rife from suppliers who continue to sprout leaving customers spoilt for choice. Providing products at the doorstep minimizes traffic to the grocery stores thereby safeguarding the lives of both the shop attendants and the customers. The question for most businesses right now is how we provide the customer experience in a meaningful way without exposing our customers to the novel virus.

In times of crisis most organizations focus on survival game plans and channel less energy towards customer experience, yet this is the best time to rethink and implement refreshing customer experience strategies. By using available data to analyse buying behaviour and customer trends, businesses can integrate their platforms and ensure the customer journey is similar and hustle free. The last thing that customers want is to be on hold for hours on end only for their problems not to be solved. Call centres must be optimized and manned by officers who are knowledgeable, safety must be guaranteed for walk in clients complemented by an efficient and timely servuction process. Deliveries must be done within the agreed time frames and the goods must be the exact orders. This may seem like basics but Covid 19 and the lockdown rattled some businesses resulting in customer experience being thrown outside the window.

Customers have resorted to converging on online platforms such to share their terrible experiences with brand and to recommend the ones they think still offer better services.

Businesses that strive to offer the best experience to their customers will definitely survive and record increased sales. Those that still think prioritising the customer is not a survival strategy might find themselves operating from the dustbin soon. The internet particularly social media has provided customers with an opportunity to rally each other, converge, vent and share brand experiences. Some businesses have suffered from customer flights after negative reviews while some have been bolstered by an increase in sales through the same platforms. Customer experience therefore remains critical to the survival of any business particularly during this Covid 19 era.

Constance Makoni is the Marketing and Public Relations Officer-National Social Security Officer (NSSA) and is a member of the Marketers Association of Zimbabwe. She writes in her personal capacity.