Not all of us are managers, but every one of us is a grocery store customer. Those of us who have direct reports in our professions—and have found our way above the daily fray of customer service—might not have had to deal directly and regularly with customers since summer jobs in high school. When customers become “clients,” there tends to be a more focused, intensive relationship, with the luxury of time, attention, and familiarity, involving projects that can last for years.
At the level of point-of-sale transactions, as in the grocery store, the best customers are gone as soon as the receipt appears—and amid these rapid-fire interactions, the more difficult customers tend to forget diplomacy and courtesy. They become memorable for the wrong reasons. When we shop for holiday dinners, we might feel overwhelmed by the crowds and short tempers around us, but imagine if that feeling characterized your job every minute of every day. There are no projects, no personal investments, only a steady stream of anxious, impatient consumers.
COVID-19 and the most recent Omicron variant have thrown another wrench in the holiday season, and the frontline workers, as usual, bear the brunt of exposure and stress. A recent article from The Conversation details the plight of grocery store employees, focusing on those in Arizona. In July 2020, a survey found that “22% of grocery workers reported symptoms of severe anxiety, while 16% reported symptoms of severe depression,” nearly twice the average of the overall population during the pandemic. Furthermore, “only 18% of grocery workers reported that they had received any meaningful training on pandemic-related safety protocols from their employer, despite existing guidelines and recommendations.” As for customer interactions:
More than half of the grocery workers we heard from believe that they will be verbally threatened by an angry customer at some point during the pandemic. Employees are often on their own when it comes to getting customers to observe basic public health measures and be civil. Many lack support from management in enforcing the public health guidelines that serve to keep them, their families, coworkers and customers safe.
If you are a manager in an industry that has intensive customer service like food retail, remember that difficult customers rarely show civility or follow guidelines without the influence of higher-ups. Effective managers back their team members when problems arise and never assume a written protocol cited by a frontline worker has as much authority as a manager politely but directly confirming its necessity.
Of course, as customers, we can all support these workers with what I call genuine kindness, a practice that is valuable not only in work but also in life. It requires as little as being patient in a long line, scrupulously following public health guidelines, or simply smiling during a transaction and asking how they’re doing. We can exercise self-awareness, take a moment to reflect, and avoid letting our stress and anxiety infect those around us. If we make a mistake, we can show accountability and apologize. You may even find that easing up in this way and considering others make your own experience of a difficult holiday season much more enjoyable.