How are customer experiences impacted by mask-wearing - and what can be done?
As stores reopen, both customers and service staff continue to wear masks. New research examines the CX impact of mask-wearing, and how it can be minimised.
Mask-wearing has become almost second nature to the vast majority of the general public over the past 12 months. And even though vaccination programmes around the world are ramping up, the indications are that masks will not only continue to be required by stores, but that consumers themselves wish to continue wearing them as a safety measure. Indeed, research by Ipsos in February found that virtually all (97%) vaccinated Americans reported wearing a mask when they left home.
In the past week, non-essential stores in England opened up once more. But with mask-wearing still in place, this raises the question of how mask-wearing will impact the ability to deliver a customer experience based on rapport and strong relationships. By impairing facial perception and communication skills, will this new era for the High Street deliver compromised customer experiences?
To understand this better, Ipsos partnered with researchers at the Center for Applied Research in Decision Making at Temple University in the US to measure the effect of mask-wearing on customer experience. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the studies they conducted concluded that mask-wearing does indeed have a significant impact on human ability to identify emotions, communicate and, hence, on customer experience and relationship building.
In the Ipsos MORI paper 'Service With A Smile', by Jean-Francois Damais, Manuel Garcia-Garcia and Fiona Moss, it was concluded that:
- Happy faces are rated as less likeable and less warm when the bottom half of the face is covered, than in the case of unmasked faces.
- However, a happy face was still correctly identified more often than not.
- Disgust, sadness, surprise, and fear were also all less likely to be correctly identified, although again, in most cases, they were correctly recognised.
- Anger was the only emotion on which face masks had no impact, in perception terms.
While good news that emotions are still correctly identified more often than not, there are clearly implications for businesses seeking to build customer relationships, because mask-wearing makes it harder for staff to recognise the emotional response of the customer and, hence, to empathise. And as recent studies from both Ipsos and MyCustomer have emphasised, empathy is all-important to customer service interactions.
But beyond emotion and empathy, the Ipsos research also revealed other ways in which customer experiences are hampered by masks, with over four in ten (43%) of those polled reporting at least some detriment to their trip as a result of wearing a mask. These included:
- Communication: With masks causing muffled voices and blocking lip reading, hearing and understanding are hindered. More than half (54%) said they could not hear the staff member, or the staff member could not hear them.
- Physical comfort: 42% said they felt physically uncomfortable wearing a mask so cut their trip short, or that the staff member appeared uncomfortable.
- Enjoyment: 38% reported that they enjoyed their trip less.
Jamie Thorpe, head of experience management, says: “CX is universally accepted as a game changer. This focus is amplified in the current climate and at a time where consumers are rushing back to physical. The impact of body language in delivering experience is massive, no-one would have thought that masks would have been here as long or even to potentially stay. This gives CX professionals who have responsibility for delivering face to face interactions a lot of food for thought.”
So what can businesses do to counteract these negative impacts of mask-wearing? Masks are likely to still be utilised for some time yet, so Ipsos also asked participants what they would like stores to do to address some of the challenges that are being reported.
Enhanced communication was fundamental to their response, with 43% of particpants wanting staff to speak more loudly and a quarter wanting clearer health and safety guidance with signs and posters.
Overall, the Ipsos research concludes that businesses should focus on, and train service staff, in the following key aspects to ensure that the impact of masks on the customer experiences are minimised:
- Body language. Where appropriate it is recommended to try and help communication with relevant and engaging gestures.
- Eye contact. Eyes can convey a lot of information and making use of the appropriate amount/form of eye contact is a way to enhance communication.
- Voice/sound. Speaking more slowly, and in some cases more loudly, will help. Managing the level of noise, including how loud music is played, is important too.
- Environment. Visual aids, such as posters and interactive devices, are ways to provide the customer with relevant information, and also to guide them through the experience and help them achieve what they came in to achieve.
For further information and analysis of this research, download 'Service With A Smile'.
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.