After the storm: A personal reflection on COVID and the future of customer experience

During a thunderstorm can you really appreciate the grandiosity and absolute supremacy of Mother Nature?
We retreat indoors as clouds roll-in, the sky darkens, high-powered winds gust and the constant rain beats down. Loud crashes of thunder shake us to the core. Young children climb into their parents’ bed, seeking comfort and a warm embrace. Left to defense, we scurry to board up windows, move cars out of flood zones and stock up on milk, bread, and basic essentials. And then we wait. While binge-watching television in sweatpants, we check-in on family members and text friends. We do simple things, things we wished we did more often, like read a book, play board games, and organize the kitchen junk drawer. We feel helpless as extraordinary damage takes place in our own backyards. 
The world just survived a monumental three-year storm named COVID-19. What felt like overnight, every aspect of life got turned on its head. We started normalizing things like quarantine, social distancing, contact tracing, masks, and virtual EVERYTHING. Our language morphed, how we interacted with one another completely changed and a majority of people were operating on fear, stress, sadness… and let’s be honest, on fumes. We have witnessed loss on so many levels and because of that, we are all very different people after this storm. And so, right now, it may feel like the eye of the storm is behind us. With a deep breath, we are still emerging from our sacred safe spots, taking inventory of the unimaginable wreckage, and trying to wrap our heads around what is happening in our communities and across the world. 
As a Chief Experience Officer with an extensive background in healthcare and the hospitality industry, I find myself reflecting a lot on how the pandemic has impacted customer service. Local coffee shops have tapped, handwritten signs forewarning of longer wait times due to short staffing. “COVID”, they say, and we all nod in collective understanding. Empty shelves with notes about supply chain issues are commonplace. “Thanks, COVID” we hear being mumbled under everyone’s breath. What used to be slightly annoying with helicopter store associates asking if you need any help, now when you look around, no one is to be found (yep, “that’s COVID for you”). Never-ending phone tree prompts, pre-recorded messaging and bad hold music makes you want to scream, “I just want to talk to a real person!” This one I have to say was happening before COVID but now our patience is that much lower, so it feels one hundred times worse. 
The question I ask myself often is, has COVID killed customer service? And although I don’t have an exact answer, I feel that the initial pandemic and subsequent variants has somewhat become a justification for sub-par service or experience.  Yes, there are very real impacts of COVID on our global economy, community-based businesses, mental health, social determinants of care, relationships, etc. We must never minimize those realities, but instead honor and actively address them to foster recovery and healing. However, there has been a post-pandemic paradigm shift that we cannot ignore. A desire for immediate satisfaction has put a strain on consumer attention and tolerance continues to decrease. People are feeling stretched and operating at their maximum capacity and that’s an unrealistic pace to maintain.
In this post-pandemic moment, there is a lot of action happening. Strategic plans which have been put on a shelf for years are getting dusted off and revamped. Employee engagement and wellness activities are popping up regularly on the calendar, which we can all agree is desperately needed. Teams are slowly migrating back to their offices, albeit in different capacities. And, although there are countless things that we ‘want’ to do, I believe, we ‘need’ to focus on the following things: 
Stop saying ‘new norm’ – Northwell Health’s President and CEO, Michael J. Dowling often says, “If you are looking back, you’re not moving forward.” I have noticed more and more people loosely using the term ‘new normal,’ personally and professionally. It’s quickly become a pet peeve of mine. Is the intent to be a coping mechanism of sorts or an effort to recognize that things are different with COVID-19 in our lives? Regardless of why, in the context of healthcare, I recommend we lose that term from our vocabulary because in my opinion, it is mostly used within a negative context. Thinking back on all of the deemed “good” things that “used to be” and how that is no longer the case. 
Channel Positivity. It is all about perspective. Now more than ever, we need to flood our culture and lives with optimism, compassion, and gratitude. Instead of constantly grieving of what was, we need to excite the workforce about where we are going, what’s next and how they are essential pieces to that journey. Interestingly enough, the pandemic did bring positive changes – the boom of telehealth services, increased teamwork, the effectiveness of integrated systems, how employee support and well-being is a major priority, just to name a few. So, we are at a true crossroads moment. We all have a choice. We can either wallow in our ‘new normal’ or seize incredible opportunities, tap into the spirit of innovation and double-down on what we learned about the power of human connection. 
Reconnect to the ‘why’. At many of our patient experience trainings, we start by asking team members to take out their cell phones, scroll through their camera roll and find a photo of someone or some people they love. This seemingly simple activity is what often grounds our teams to what patient experience is. Who are patients? Patients are you; patients are me; patients are the people on their phone – mothers, husbands, children, grandparents, best friends, roommates, even pets are often selected. Then we ask them, “what would you expect if that loved one was a patient?” The answers are always the same. They want empathy, communication, quality care, compassion, to feel seen and heard, for family to be involved in their care, patience, and safety. Although it feels like everyone is drowning in their to-do list, taking time for teams to reflect and connect back to their professional ‘why’ will be more impactful than any PowerPoint or one-pager. 
Share stories. During the pandemic, we witnessed incredible acts of humanism. Frontline healthcare professionals not only showed up to work, but they committed to providing exceptional holistic care. They brushed back patients’ hair and wiped away teams before intubation, they lined hospital hallways to cheer on patients being discharged, they offered sincere prayers during virtual family visits and held each other up when acuity, volume and mortality reached all-time highs. Storytelling can be incredibly cathartic, powerful, motivational, and impactful. Everyone has a story - healthcare leaders need to talk less and listen more. It’s become a Northwell tradition to start all meetings, forums, and events with a patient story because it grounds and reminds us of why each one of us are working in healthcare… to care for people. 
Address Hostility Head-On: In society at large, it sometimes feels like people are generally angry, annoyed, and quick to agitate. I too have had my moments, it’s real. This behavior may be a symptom on something larger. However, too many news headlines have reported violence and aggressive behavior within healthcare settings. It’s a sad reality and our frontline healthcare professionals deserve to work in an environment that promotes healing and mutual respect. Our organization has endured horrific incidents of domestic and gun violence, escalatory and aggressive behavior by patients and family members in addition to some close calls. Northwell has become a national leader advocating that gun violence is a public health crisis. We are constantly educating teams on de-escalation and active shooter protocols, began installing weapons detection technology and implemented patient-centric signage outlining behavioral expectations while on campus. 
Focus on Empathy. I know empathy has been a buzz word for the past few years, but I’m going to call it out because it continues to be of the utmost importance. Donned in extensive personal protective equipment (PPE) healthcare providers became increasingly mindful of exposure, and rightfully so. Things like sitting down at the bedside, using therapeutic touch, group therapy and extensive education sessions became less commonplace. Empathy is a communication skill that requires learning, practicing, honing, and making it your own. Now more than ever, we need to lead with charitable assumptions – believing the best of people. Through experiential team-based courses, Northwell has been educating all team members on non-verbal empathy techniques, particularly while wearing masks. What we say matters – our evidence-based curriculum also reinforces verbal empathy best practices, concepts, terms, and approaches that fuel a sense of partnership and collaboration. We also practice service recovery and delve into phone etiquette, delivering a professional and empathetic first impression. 
Caring for Ourselves. We cannot take empathy for granted. Like the old adage says, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’ That’s true with empathy. You cannot give empathy, be fully present and hold space, if you are depleted and on empty. Right now, organizations and leaders must listen to their workforce and give them the time, tools, resources, support, and guidance. In caring for ourselves, can we then best care for patients, families, and our communities. And it doesn’t have to be overly complicated or expensive… remember storytelling? And this goes for leaders too! Often times leaders are so overwhelming caring for everyone else, they put themselves last and burn-out first. Self-care doesn’t have to be some grand or impressive gesture like completing a triathlon or doing hot yoga 5 days a week. To me, self-care are the little things like enjoying a good cup of coffee, catching-up with an old friend, cooking something new, watching a great movie, or going for a long run.  
At the end of the day, we are humans caring for humans and we need to equip our workforce to meet the needs and desires of those we serve. Healthcare is in the relationship business. Organizations need to prioritize their relationship with their leaders, providers, and team members so that they in turn, can provide exceptional patient and family centered care. We need to remove the friction or hassle that often exists within the healthcare ecosystem. Looking at policy, processes and care delivery models, we can make things easier and smoother for patients and families to partner with us. 
And so, COVID may not have killed customer service entirely. I am optimistic about where we go from here. The pandemic has afforded us an opportunity, a historic moment in time to do things differently, challenge the status quo, ask tough questions, and ultimately evolve with our complex society. It has shined a light on areas we excel in and where we need to focus more on and improve. The future starts today, let’s create a beautiful legacy, together. 

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