With immunizations becoming the norm rather than the exception, the economy is on the verge of a reset as people return to a relatively normal routine. Even so, many people will feel it’s anything but normal, wary to return to their former routines or still wanting to wear a mask and stay six feet apart from anyone not in their inner circle of trust.

This could prove true for employees and customers alike. We have all changed in one way or another over the last 15 months. Some will want to forget all about the pandemic, while others will be hypervigilant about the cleanliness and safety of their immediate surroundings. As a business, you’re going to have to navigate these diverse and often contradictory worlds, often at the same time.  

Trust in our institutions – the government, media, businesses, and even entire countries – is at an all-time low. As the old saying goes, it takes a lifetime to build trust and mere moments to destroy. Gaining trust back is going to be a challenge, especially if you were forced to close unexpectedly or had to lay off staff in a last-ditch effort to make ends meet.

Employees have taken a beating. It’s not hard to see why their trust won’t be easily restored. As a business owner, know that trust won’t return overnight. You’re going to have to redouble your efforts to be honest, transparent and consistent, and one misstep can send you straight back to square one.

Building employee trust

Honesty is the basis of any relationship. Admitting your mistakes and imperfections can be a catalyst for transformation. You can’t just sweep what happened under the carpet and pretend everything is normal again. If you are going to rebuild trust with employees old and new, you need to make sure that your staff is part of the journey, not an afterthought. Keep your workers in the loop and be willing to share challenges as they arise. You want your team to understand where you’re going, the challenges you collectively face and how they can be part of the solution.

Encourage open communication. Encourage your employees to provide feedback. If employees seem reluctant, put a box in the breakroom where staff can leave suggestions, comments and questions anonymously. Be sure you respond to this feedback, even if it is in an email but make sure you don’t name names. Maintain anonymity.

Be transparent. Lead by example. Start by listening to your employees and responding to their concerns or questions in a timely fashion. Avoid holding what appear to be secretive meetings or bringing new people on without introducing them and explaining their role to your staff.

Delegate whenever possible. Giving staff more responsibility shows that you have faith in their abilities and recognizes hard work. With this increase in responsibility comes additional accountability for actions and results. Inviting key staff to be involved in decisions will increase loyalty and buy-in. It will also help lighten the load, especially if you’ve been making all the decisions yourself.

Be flexible. If we’ve learned one thing through it all, it’s that not everyone is the same. As you restart or rebuild your business, see where you can show more flexibility. Employees may take more sick leave than they used to or want a day off with little to no notice. They may not want to wear a tie every day or enjoy more freedom to personalize their workstations. Identify opportunities to personalize and individualize the worker experience.

Show trust to get trust. To earn trust, you have to give it first. This can include flexible work schedules, increased availability for remote work or less supervision of daily work. Many of your workers were trusted to work remotely during the pandemic. Are they really going to respond to a micro-managing supervisor in the office post-pandemic? If you don’t have faith in the people who work for you, is it a problem with the worker or your management style?

Focus on physical safety. In the wake of a global pandemic, employees will want to feel safe. This means keeping your place spotless, following best practices and ensuring that your workers feel safe coming to work and leaving after their shift, especially when it’s extremely early or late. Workers may still be shy about being too close to others, including their fellow team members. You may have to send a worker home with what were once minor cold symptoms to reassure workers and the public.

Share financial and supply chain challenges. If your business isn’t back to normal yet in terms of revenue or foot traffic, share this with your staff. You’d be surprised that your team members will be understanding; we’ve all been through the wringer financially over the past year or so. If you need to defer raises or increase premiums for benefits because your costs increased, be honest about it. The same is true if you’re having problems with your supply chain because the terms have changed or you had to find a new supplier. This may cause periodic shortages of products or supplies that your staff will have to explain to customers. Information is a powerful thing, and rather than thinking you’re just cheap, your employees may offer up some new ideas to help solve the problems you’re facing.

Rebuilding customer trust

The pandemic has taught us a great deal about customers, loyalty and best practices. One thing is for sure. Customers are less loyal than they have ever been, and while forgiving, they have less patience than they did for lackluster service, poor quality and high prices. The daily rhythms of most small businesses have fallen apart. It will take time to create smooth shift changes, ensure that there isn’t too much or too little product, that customers aren’t waiting forever to make a purchase and re-establish a connection with customers old and new.

A new barometer of success will be satisfying a customer by delivering experiences and services that exceed their expectations while showing empathy, care and concern at every turn. The days of indifferent customer services are gone. People have lost their patience for it.

Here are some ways you can build trust and create engagement with customers.

Personalize experiences. After being on lockdown for a year and a half, customers want to feel special. You want to reduce their anxiety at every turn. Some people won’t remember the cultural norms that were once second nature to them. For example, many people surveyed said they don’t want to shake hands anymore, which used to be the norm. Customers may continue to want to pay via contactless payment systems or seat themselves. Learning these preferences and institutionalizing them as you reopen and rebuild will increase loyalty and strengthen brand preferences.

Bring back the personal touch. Customers may be a bit more demanding than they used to be. Customers have endured months of being anonymous to those who serve them. They have been wearing masks, stuck in their cars waiting for an employee to drop their order in the back or stuck in endless customer service loops on the phone. As they make their way back into the world, make sure you welcome them with a friendly smile, and if possible, greet them by name. Even as you add a personal touch, don’t be overly anxious to eliminate alternate business models that they may have come to appreciate, such as curbside pickups, takeout or delivery.

Safety first. Even with a vaccine, customers may still be skittish, especially since it’s still not understood how long the vaccine maintains its effectiveness or whether it will work against future mutations. You will want to reassure customers that you are following best practices for sanitation and cleaning. No one is going to complain that you’re being too clean or cautious. This goes for your public-facing employees. A seemingly innocent cough from a cold or allergy could be perceived as a public health threat.

Communicate clearly. Customers need clear communications about your practices. If you require masks because of local regulations or are closing early because you don’t have enough staff, let your customers know and post signs if possible. Don’t leave customers guessing, or worse, cause them to feel embarrassed because they showed up at 7:45 and you close at 8. As things change, keep your customers informed. This not only shows respect but creates anticipation as you announce longer hours, a new menu or the pending arrival of new products.

Be transparent. As business returns to normal, there will be inevitable hiccups. There will be supply chain disruptions or order shortages; you may experience higher turnover or increased absenteeism that leaves you short-staffed. Let your customers know what’s going on. If their favorite product is out of stock or not on the menu, explain why. If service is slow, tell your customers that you’re doing your best but finding good employees is still a challenge. Customers will understand. What they won’t understand is poor service, quality or lack of availability if they are left to their own imaginations. They may just go elsewhere.

The key is to be flexible, let go of the way things you did in the past, think entrepreneurially and listen intently to your employees and customers so that you can build and earn trust.

Somewhere north of the Emerald City, trying to find an open bar (and a bar that’s open),

  • Robb