The coronavirus outbreak has forced many organisations to change how they deliver services and, in some cases, how they fundamentally operate. While essential service providers remain open, albeit with new rules of interaction, many front of house (FoH) functions have closed their doors to protect their staff and customers. Below are some useful considerations to minimise disruption and support your customers and staff during this period.

Considerations after closing

The decision to close FoH cannot be taken lightly, both from a commercial and, more importantly, a community safety perspective. Yet where suitable measures cannot mitigate the risks, it may be the only option.

Formally closing FoH requires rapid logistics and people planning, but the juggling act doesn’t stop there. During the closure, you will need to continue supporting your customers, staff and stakeholders. The checklist below will help you support your organisation through this difficult period and emerge stronger.

Identify your vulnerable stakeholders
Distinguish your traditional customer profiles into various subsets based on their ability to deal with the closure. It may help you identify customers who cannot access digital solutions or those who are likely to want or need your services now more than ever. The same can be done with staff to understand their ability to continue to work, suppliers to modify delivery of services, and partners to redirect referrals from the physical address.

Develop a communications strategy
Uncertainty is currently rife. The anxiety it can induce can significantly impact staff productivity and customer experience. Leaders cannot afford to wait for a perfect solution before they communicate – radio silence is only likely to cause even greater stress. It’s best to develop and launch a communications strategy rapidly, including key messages and group-specific requirements, e.g. why FoH is closed, how to access services, where to find more information, who to contact, when it may reopen, etc. Also, think about how to communicate with individual stakeholders, recognising that online channels may not be suitable for everyone.

Manage risks
Though it is hard to step back and take a strategic view when core operational issues remain unresolved, it has never been more important to take a proactive approach to risk management. The physical distance may cause you to lose incidental intelligence gained through daily interaction with staff, customers and suppliers. Also, while people focus on their own situation, they may not think to contact you in advance of an issue arising. The repercussions of this may be more dire than usual in the current period. In the absence of a crystal ball, set up new virtual risk war rooms to monitor priority risks regularly and model scenario contingencies, recognising that the situation evolves daily.

Move online quickly
Many services can be delivered virtually or largely facilitated by online means. Host creative problem-solving forums to identify innovative approaches across the end-to-end process. This may include video-conferencing tools, online payment platforms, queue management systems and call centre adjustments. It may also involve streamlining services and focusing, as supermarkets have done, on the most popular services or products.

Minimise disruption
Removing a physical FoH presence can be a catalyst to rethinking processes and reviewing what can be streamlined. Some changes may be temporary, e.g. removing a cash charge, while others may be lasting improvements, e.g. video verifications for new bank customers. Digital solutions are key as both short-term, stopgap interventions and more improved, long-term options, e.g. using an automated phone-based payment system while a digital platform is being developed.

Offer your customers and organisation greater value
It’s easy to dwell on what you have lost by closing FoH, but it’s more worthwhile to consider what you have gained – and what you intend to maintain following the crisis. From new innovative approaches to staff providing new sources of value to customers, many businesses are demonstrating impressive creativity, such as retailers offering DIY kits and videos, and fitness chains running virtual classes. New services may not generate the same profits but they can help maintain staff and customer loyalty, which is crucial in the current environment. Innovation processes can be formalised through an internal incubator, enabling organisations to use the current situation as a catalyst to develop a more agile and entrepreneurial culture.

Deliver alternative services
As effective as digital solutions may be, the fact is not all customers will be able to use them. Use your various stakeholder subsets (see “Identify your vulnerable stakeholders”) to address the barriers preventing individuals from using online services. Helpful, alternative approaches may include completing online submission forms for customers over the phone, physical mail-outs or outreach services (observing appropriate safety practices).

Opportunity to improve resilience

It is a challenging time and the safety of staff, customers and the broader public must take priority when making decisions. Equally, the ability to continue delivering services effectively, even after closing FoH, is critical to your organisation’s success.

While many organisations are working hard to maintain basic service provision, there is an opportunity to improve operational resilience and remote working practices, while increasing efficiency and self-service. Digital solutions will only get you so far. A pragmatic response that focuses on people will ensure your organisation flourishes and customers, staff and the wider community are cared for during this difficult period.

Finally, it is important to consider that as we prove successful in the temporary new normal, we may never fully revert back to our old ways of working, with some changes likely to stick. Approaching this situation with a healthy balance of apprehension and optimism can help set you up for success. Planning for a transition to a new, new normal can ensure your FoH – and broader organisation – is well-positioned to succeed as the pandemic subsides.

CHRIS ROBERTSON | SENIOR CONSULTANT

Chris is a senior consultant with a wealth of experience advising the public sector on critical programme, policy and organisation issues. He has a keen interest in human-centred design and its impact on strategy development and implementation.