On the Road Again
by Eric Knudson, Creative Director for PARSONS + CO
I recently busted out of lockdown to take a road trip of sorts. I flew from Seattle to Palm Springs, — masked, gloved, goggled and in fetal position for most of the flight — swooped up my 86-year old mother and then we drove together to Salem, Oregon, where she moved into a retirement community.
It was my first time away from Seattle in quite some time and gave me an interesting look at how some businesses are managing to make it work under incredibly challenging circumstances.
Mask and You Shall Receive
On the second morning of the trip, I reluctantly decided that a nearby McDonalds was probably the best option for a quick breakfast before we started driving. A national chain known for efficiency and consistency, surely they’d have their act together? The drive-through was packed, so I decided to walk in and get our Egg McMuffins to go.
Except you couldn’t walk in. They had placed two large tables in front of the main entrance to prevent customers from entering. An employee stood there with a menu — a Word document covered in fingerprints. You gave your order to Barricade Guy, he took it to the kitchen and brought it out when it was ready. You handed him your money, he walked back to the cash register and then brought you your change.
Not fast. Not easy. Not what you expect from McDonald’s. But they had figured out a new system that, for the most part, worked. And based on the crowd that morning, it was enough to keep their customers coming in.
That night I got takeout from a small family-owned Mexican restaurant across the street from our hotel. I was the only customer. The owner said it would take 10-15 minutes to prepare, so I took a seat in one of a handful of chairs paced throughout the parking lot. There was a lovely view… of the dumpster.
In a few minutes, the owner brought me a complimentary box of homemade chips and salsa. He asked if I wanted a beer. It wasn’t quite the same as enjoying a drink on the patio, but why not? Moments later, a man wearing a surgical mask, latex gloves and a Mariachi suit appeared. He handed me my beer, carefully backed away two paces and began playing guitar for me. Somehow, they had transformed a grab-n-go transaction into a memorable evening.
One restaurant had to re-think their proven system and come up with new ways to do things. The other was able to recreate their pre-pandemic customer experience, at least to some degree.
When it comes to business, we are all in this weird, constantly changing state of limbo. Some businesses are open, “like normal.” Some are operating on a limited basis. Some remain closed. Many have gone out of business entirely. Circumstances vary by state, city and neighborhood.
No one knows what’s going to happen next, but you should get used to the idea that it’s going to require a dramatically different approach:
Forget what you think you know about your customers. Not everyone will want the same thing or be on the same schedule for reopening.
The new normal will challenge your team like never before. Internal policies and solutions that worked pre-pandemic, may need to be completely rethought.
Communication will be critical. It’s going to be confusing as companies start to open back up. There will be more middle ground, more grey areas, more unknowns. All of which will need to be communicated, both internally and externally.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be messy. And the new normal might not be normal at all. We’ll need to be smart, flexible and creative. The one thing it won’t be? Dull.