“Because when you trust, everything is simple. If you don’t trust, things get complicated.“ Stephen Covey – The Speed of Trust
A lot has happened in just a couple of months. Our lives have been disrupted. We’re out of sorts and on edge. This note will be one of three trying to offer suggestions for how we move forward establishing trust with our customers in a COVID world. In this note, we will try to offer some shared context highlighting some experiences we’re all likely encountering that are wildly different today than just a few months ago. In the next one, we’ll discuss some possible explanations for why it is natural for us and others to be confused as a result of these changes. Finally, we’ll offer some possible paths forward to consider in your internal conversations for how to make the best of things and seek to add value to your customer base as we move forward.
Part I – Trying Behaviors.
Some years ago our family was waiting to board a plane in Vancouver to head off for a family vacation. The coming flight was to be over six hours and two of the five of us had boarding passes that put us amongst strangers. As we diplomatically determined how we would distribute ourselves we relied on our commitment to competence as a core value in decision making. The way forward was pure meritocracy. We would compete in the game of “1-2-3, not it.” The last one to finish the statement was the loser and had earned a spot alone amongst strangers. We would then do this exercise again to determine the second solo traveler of the family. Never mind that this game is entirely rigged to the benefit of the person who is “leading” the utterance of the phrase, which, conveniently was me. Ironically, our youngest and my wife, the two most social and friendly were the “losers” of this effort.
At the time, our youngest was nine. He has a friendly disposition and enjoys meeting new people. He had sat by himself on a plane in the past and had always had good experiences. He looked forward to his adventure as he boarded. My wife was somewhat less enthused but gamely took her seat alone. Our other two sons and I breathed a sigh of relief at being able to sit together as victors. Slowly the plane filled with other travelers. Our youngest had an aisle seat with a young couple. To the disappointment of our youngest the couple beside him weren’t overly interested in engaging. They kept to themselves. Soon, he noticed that the male passenger in the window seat was wearing a face mask of some kind. This was a new experience for him. He didn’t know what to make of it. It broke his brain, scared him, and made him uncomfortable. What was wrong with this fellow? Was he sick? Was he scared of others? What was he hiding? Am I at risk? He managed his discomfort by sleeping his way through the flight and was grateful to be off the plane when we arrived. Now, some six years later, we’re seeing masks everywhere. Yet, they still make us feel a little awkward. We’re not sure what to make of them.
I was out running an errand with one of my son’s the Friday afternoon of Victoria Day long weekend, the traffic was picking up and we enjoyed seeing a bit more hustle and bustle in our small town. This weekend marks the kick off to summer and folk seem eager to flock to our neck of the woods in order to blow off some steam. It seems the current times were no exception. As we drove past our local liquor store we saw there was no shortage of business there. We noticed a young lady, perhaps in her mid twenties, casually exiting the store with a 24 pack of Coors Banquet in each hand. She was wearing plastic gloves and a mask. It struck me as an odd image. A few thoughts ran through my head. How are you going to drink those cold beers with your mask? Who are you going to drink that many beers with? You can’t possibly be doing it alone. Was she dressed up that way out of respect for or concern with others when going shopping, was she doing so because she was scared for herself, or was she doing it because she thought this was how she was supposed to behave in order to fit? She was walking back to a car where a young man was waiting with the trunk open like the mouth of a Rhinoceros, eager to receive the fresh beer. He wasn’t wearing any personal protective equipment. We’ve all seen scenes like this in the past months. Perhaps, we’ve been these people.
In the midst of this maelstrom, we’re seeing a bell curve of behaviors. Some of us believe the smart ones are those that jumped on the lockdowns. Most of these folk are happy being early adopters of our virus vocabulary and PPE. Others may believe that caution may have been a more prudent practice. Taking a bit more time to learn and think through consequences of never before societal lockdowns may have been preferred. Yet, still others move from one of these positions to the other almost daily not knowing which was the better way. On top of the confusion of how we got here, we’re now left with as much uncertainty related to figuring out how to manage our way through and out of this mess. Most of us are clustered around the middle of the curve where we’re trying to do what we think is the right thing. We are willingly complying with societal restrictions. We’re trying to minimize the risks to ourselves and others. We’re accepting and adopting the new mantra to stay home and stay safe. We’re doing this whether the underlying motivation is driven by self-preservation, concern of others, or just trying to fit in. We’re trying in our way to do our part.
The mostly well intended behaviors of businesses and individuals we’re witnessing are so different relative to what our familiarity is that we’re naturally off balance. The behaviors we’re trying to adapt to and adopt are trying. They are difficult to do. Our experiences doing basic, boring tasks like grocery shopping or buying beers have changed. What do I do when I enter the store? Which way am I supposed to travel? What am I allowed to purchase? Am I supposed to wear gloves, mask, both, more, less? Where’s the handbook to handle where we are? Does how we behave and what is acceptable depend on where we are, what news we’re watching, or who we’re talking to? The information we have been receiving, especially early on, was changing daily. Initially, masks didn’t seem to be recommended. Then certain types of mask were useful to protect others from the mask wearer, now any mask seems helpful for anyone, and now in many cases they are mandatory. Though the influx of information isn’t pleasant, it’s understandable.
Our confusion continues into how we conduct ourselves in our worlds of commerce. In the early days of COVID-19 just as restrictions were slowly being imposed, I recall a Linked In post from someone in the insurance industry. The post was a rant regarding receipt of a marketing email. The poster was vociferously voicing that viral times was no time to be trying to sell anything. He observed we’re worried about the health and safety of ourselves, our families, colleagues, mankind, etc. Trying to sell something in the current context was both cold and callous. Worse, it was selfish. The poster was clear that he was interpreting the message in the worst way possible and that he considered the sender to be the lowest of the low. He made a point to note that he would be putting this request at the bottom of his list and ensuring that his firm would not do business with that of the one sending the message. If I recall correctly, the poster was an employee at a large insurance company.
It wasn’t obvious to readers of this post what product or service was seeking to be marketed. Newspapers, TV channels, and other mediums haven’t stopped producing advertising. These mediums are desperate for any ad revenue they can generate. Social Media platforms haven’t stopped running ads. Those of us lucky enough to have a product or service left to sell should be able to try and do so, shouldn’t we? Moreover, aren’t there some products and services for which we’re all clamoring? For example, groceries, internet services, cell phones, Personal Protective Equipment, cleaning supplies, home entertainment, technology, and, yes, beer. Don’t we want to know what is available in these areas?
As business owners and consumers, we’re confused. As consumers we wrestle with whether we should be trying our best to support businesses and frequent those that are trying to be open or whether we should avoid any non-essential activity all together. We ask ourselves questions like am I doing my part if I’m shopping and supporting the economy or if I’m hunkered down at home? For each of us that believes we should be trying to support businesses, there’s another that feels we need to stay away. Business owners are conflicted with trying to balance competing desires to serve customers, sustain staff, comply with social distancing demands, and trying to preserve their lifetime business investment. None of this is easy. None of this is clear cut. Different people will make different decisions while trying to act as reasonably as possible.
Wherever we are, what we continue to share in common is the considerable change to our common activities. What used to be completely trivial, even boring activities are now fraught with complications. We even feel a little guilty trying to meet a colleague or friend for a tailgate Tim’s. Standing on either side of a truck sipping our individually bought cup of coffee in a public parking lot earns us caustic stares from others driving by. Outside of reduced rush hour traffic, there doesn’t seem to be any interaction that has become easier in recent months. Everything that we’re able to do is now much more difficult than it was. Think of the transaction costs that have significantly shifted in recent weeks. For the few stores we’ve been able to attend, the rules of engagement are drastically different. The way we now enter stores, move about, what freedom we have to touch items, and restrictions on how many we can take are examples of what’s changed. Additionally, the way we line up to pay, how we pay, pack, and exit the store have all changed. As, too, have the way we attend and function within our own offices. This is a massive amount of change in a short time. Each step has been put in place precisely to create barriers between us. A roadside sign seen captures our collective confusion, it read: “We’re in this together…six feet apart.” This is the oddity of our moment. How can we possibly be together and apart? It doesn’t make sense. We’re wobbling, wondering what to think.
Much of all the “extra” steps are imposed with the best of intentions. Yes, we’re trying to increase our collective safety. By prioritizing safety and imposing these additional hurdles, the natural reaction for many of us is that these are needed because we no longer trust others. We now seem to be trading trust for safety. We think the safety we get or feel we get from creating barriers between us is worth the reduction in trust with each other. We’ve torpedoed trust in a search for safety. Yes, people are being parted for a purpose, but this comes at a cost.
“The most perishable commodity in a high change environment, is trust.” Stephen Covey – The Speed of Trust