Customer Service Representative Bob Calhoun assists a traveler at PIT's landside information desk.

Customer Service, Behind the Mask

It wasn’t until this spring that Patti Getty learned she had a special skill.

“I never realized how much lip reading I did,” said Getty, a six-year veteran customer service representative at Pittsburgh International Airport, who has been serving masked customers at the airport’s information desks since March. “It’s very different [now]. I was saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t hear you’ more often because I couldn’t see their lips. It’s another hurdle to get over.”

Chalk up another lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic: Delivering a high standard of customer service means adapting to different styles of communication.

Making customers feel welcome without smiling, or pointing to give directions without being rude, have now become everyday occurrences.

Communicating with at least half a person’s face covered presents many obstacles, but they can be overcome, said Erica Kaehly, president of Pittsburgh-based Guest Service Solutions, a customer experience training consulting firm,

“You communicate with more than just your mouth,” she said “You use your eyes and other body language.  You can make a person feel welcome by walking toward them and say ‘hello’ using a pleasant tone.”

Non-verbal communication is what gave Lise D’Andrea an “a-ha” moment when she recently stopped by a Dunkin’ Donuts.

“I pulled up to the window and (the cashier) waved to me and I waved back,” said D’Andrea, who is the CEO of CXE, an Annapolis, Md.-based consulting firm. “‘That’s different,’ I thought. She was communicating in a different way from what I was used to seeing. I knew this was something I needed to look at.”

Upon returning to her office, D’Andrea shared the information with co-workers, and the following discussion led to an epiphany – and a book project.

The result is “Mask over Matter,” an e-book she authored to help businesses quickly adjust to today’s customers, most of whom are now wearing masks or other face coverings. D’Andrea has worked with Los Angeles International Airport, Houston Airport System and Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle, and her company has shared the book with the airport industry’s trade organization, Airports Council International.

Four months into the pandemic and both employees and customers are still learning to master masked communication.

“We’ve been wearing masks for a few months,” said Bob Calhoun, another customer service representative at Pittsburgh, where the customers are kept at a safe distance behind stanchions that surround the desk.  “We have become used to speaking louder so that they can hear us. Most of the customers haven’t learned that they need to speak louder as well.”

Calhoun and Getty agree that they have adopted other forms of body language to communicate, as well as changing their tone of voice,  to make customers feel welcome.

But of all the communication skills, the one that remains unchanged may still be among the most important.

“Active listening skills are vital. Nodding and leaning in show that you are listening,” D’Andrea said. “That medical-style mask reduces the level of empathy.”

That lack of empathy concerns Kaehly, who cites recent media reports of political polarization around wearing masks and society’s continued dependence on social media. She does, however, see the pandemic as an opportunity to improve not only customer service, but the human condition as well.

“That’s my dream,” she said. “We have seen the loss of the human connection through technology. Now our mouths are covered for an extended period of time. We are going to value human connection that much more when this is done. We can redefine the heart of hospitality and treat each other better. I’m excited about that.”

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