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‘Everyone needs to feel their job makes a difference’

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As Charles Dickens once wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Retail pharmacy chains like CVS have seen their profits surge during the pandemic.

Rick Garlick

As an essential industry, retail pharmacies were able to keep operating, even as many other retailers were forced to temporarily shutter. Employees at these pharmacies continued to come to work, while others within the retail industry were told to stay home for their own safety. Many retail employees were able to collect enhanced unemployment benefits, while retail pharmacy employees had to keep working to collect a paycheck. When you add the fact that customers often seek out the pharmacy when they are feeling sick, retail pharmacy employees experienced a particular health risk.

Many retail pharmacy employees work at lower wages, so levels of engagement may already be low. When you add to the fact that social distancing is especially emphasized in the pharmacy environment, it is likely many employees will avoid customers as much as possible. Managers who believe that service is a strong driver of customer satisfaction and loyalty will find the aversion toward customer interactions to be concerning. Employee health and safety is obviously paramount, so how do you facilitate employee engagement with pharmacy customers during this time when human contact remains highly risky?

Keep the mission of the job front and center, as well as the employee’s role in fulfilling that mission. The pharmacy’s mission is to keep people healthy and safe during one of the worst periods in human history. Retail pharmacies also provide all the necessities for good hygiene. Everyone needs to feel their job makes a difference beyond collecting a paycheck. Sometimes, people get caught up in the physical tasks they perform at their workplace rather than the importance of the mission they fulfill. Pharmacy workers are playing a heroic role like never before. Every employee needs to be reminded of this truth.

Prioritize courtesy over efficiency. The Disney Institute training model focuses on four core values for Disney properties: Safety, Courtesy, Show and Efficiency. Disney employees are trained to put safety first but prioritize courtesy before efficiency. Particularly during these times, pharmacies must make safety the foremost priority for both employees and customers. However, if a customer needs assistance while a pharmacy employee is stocking shelves, or doing other work that is not directly customer-related, consider teaching employees to interrupt what they are doing to prioritize customer needs.

Offer meaningful recognition for exemplary work. Some companies have offered essential workers “hero pay” bonuses during this period of the pandemic. Pay bonuses are always appreciated, but the impact of noncash recognition should be considered as well. There are hundreds of ways to recognize and reward employees for great work, such as gift cards or merchandise; team lunches; offering to treat employees to lunch or dinner with their families; status awards like trophies or plaques; or even an occasional paid day off. Sometimes, employees need more than just their paychecks to stay engaged and motivated on the job.

Align incentives with customer satisfaction feedback. It is human nature to exhibit the behavior for which they are recognized and rewarded. As such, consider incorporating customer feedback, whether formal satisfaction scores or anecdotal feedback, into promotion and reward decisions to get employees to focus on customer service.

Train employees to greet and thank customers and, whenever possible, use their names. This is a staple of customer service training. People appreciate a warm greeting when entering a store, as well as an appreciative “thank you” and invitation to return. Using the customer’s name when possible (and appropriate) has been shown as a good way to make a connection in the hospitality industry. This is a strategy that can easily be applied to a retail environment as well.

Measuring employee engagement is more important than ever. Studying how employees feel about their workplace is fairly commonplace. With unemployment at historic highs due to the pandemic, companies feel less concerned about voluntary turnover than they may have six months ago when the economy was booming. However, these companies should not get complacent, as essential workers, such as those who work in pharmacies, may seek other employment as soon as things pick up if they do not feel respected for their willingness to come to work. Furthermore, given recent events, it is particularly important to explore areas of diversity and inclusion to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard and appreciated.

While retail pharmacies have always been important, it is difficult to imagine another time when their presence has been so critical. The employees who continue to serve their pharmacy’s customers every day deserve special recognition for their efforts, as well as more attention than in the past.

One can argue that pharmacy employees have been on the front lines during the pandemic and, as such, are heroes in their own right.

Rick Garlick is a vice president at Magid. He can be contacted at rgarlick@magid.com.


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