The COVID-19 crisis puts the old adage “the customer is always right” to the ultimate test. Like many small business owners, I welcome accountability and aim to use all manner of feedback as fuel for growth. But as society experiments with new health and safety practices, small businesses are confronting a particular hostility from some customers who accuse the business of going too far — or not far enough — in enforcing these new rules. And as anyone who has worked retail knows from experience, the customer can be magnificently wrong, unreasonable, rude and even abusive. I’ve witnessed this firsthand.
The debate puts a business’s employees in the middle of a fight they didn’t pick. The misplaced anger can bubble up when a customer is asked to wear a mask, or from others if not enough people are wearing them. More than a few frustrated patrons on both ends of the spectrum have verbally abused our café staff while voicing frustration over new health and safety practices. To what end? Surely common sense dictates that the barista, hostess or cashier didn’t write these rules and are merely doing their jobs. How does reducing a minimum-wage employee to tears in a public place result in a safer or less restrictive environment — depending on your point of view.
As owners and operators, we now walk a fine line between extreme perceptions that we’re either suffocating freedoms with overly restrictive policies or presenting a frivolous indifference to a global health crisis by putting profits above people. Hopefully both extremes represent a vocal minority. But so far, they speak volumes about the challenges small businesses face, while we try to placate and survive. Small businesses have already faced government-mandated closures and restrictions. Many are facing staggering financial losses, mass layoffs and wild uncertainty in the months ahead. A recent survey indicated many local small businesses don’t know if they’ll survive. The last thing we need now is to be trapped in an unwinnable culture war, with our employees unwitting casualties in day-to-day operations.
As much as we need customers to return to businesses and spend enthusiastically, we also need a new currency of patience and respect for the new health and safety rules we are all navigating.
Jonathan White is the owner and founder of SteamDot Coffee Roasters in Anchorage.
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