A friend of mine, Brad, owns a gas station and convenience store chain in the Lehigh Valley. I stopped at one of his stores recently and stood behind two customers as the cashier rang them up while I awaited my turn.

Oddly, the clerk never rang up my sale. I looked at the register screen and it still showed the 10 cents change from the previous customer as she asked me for the dollar amount of my purchase. When I handed her a $20 bill, she used her phone to figure out the change.

Having worked in a convenience store about 35 years ago, I recalled audits conducted by my manager for “no-sales,” meaning the register was opened, but no sale was entered. It’s a common sign of theft. After I returned to my car, I called Brad and explained what I thought happened.

Brad was grateful for the call. He reached out to me a few days later and shared that, sure enough, there were multiple no-sales recorded not just on the day I visited but on multiple days on the clerk’s shift.

Then Brad shocked me when he said, “Tina, you will be surprised to hear that I cannot terminate this employee. If I did I would need to work 24/7 because I cannot find enough employees to run the store.”

My mind was blown. I tried to process what he told me. Are we at a point where we must compromise to this extreme? Are employers so desperate for a warm body that they will tolerate previously unacceptable behavior?

The untenable situation of needing to retain inferior employees affects more than business owners. It has likely affected all of us in the form of poor customer service — especially since the pandemic. It’s a double whammy for companies that rely on customer service: They’re often understaffed with underperforming employees. The result: underwhelming customer service.

A recent Forbes article listed 15 statistics about the post-pandemic changes in customer service. Some of the more eye-opening highlights included:

  • 75% of consumers say customer service worsened during the pandemic. The spin here is that too many companies are still using staffing shortages as an excuse 30 months since the onset of the pandemic rather than finding new ways to serve their customers.
  • There is an uptick in moving customers toward self-service options to manage their needs. Frustrated in dealing with poor customer service, customers want to be able to easily fulfill their needs on their own.
  • At the same time, 58% of consumers say their customer service expectations are higher than they were a year ago. Consumers weary of slow service due to shutdowns and staff shortages are demanding more attention. It’s an interesting revelation considering that self-service options are more in demand than ever. The takeaway: We want more ability to do things at our own at our pace and on our own terms, but when it comes to needing help, we expect a higher caliber of service than we received pre-COVID.

Challenges exist for sure. But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. Company owners, leaders and managers who are willing to adjust to market demands can find ways to use the current situation to their advantage and propel their companies forward.

Provide customers with more and better self-service options. Despite an initial investment, the long-term benefits of reducing the need to hire, train and support hourly employees can pay off. Look for tasks and processes that have the dual benefit of reducing labor needs and providing benefits to customers such as speed and control. Self-service must improve the customer experience, not merely replace a customer-facing employee or cause more frustration.

Organizations can use long-term savings to upgrade the service provided by their live employees through customer service training, added support and guidance for front-line team members, and improving the overall quality of hires.

Elevate the customer experience to make it part of the brand experience. Treat it with the importance that it deserves. The Forbes article notes that 50 percent of consumers say the pandemic caused them to rethink their purpose and priorities. Customers are emerging from the pandemic with new values ― and they want to connect with brands that reflect their values and treat them like humans. They’ve realized that there are options and won’t stick with brands that don’t provide excellent service.

The time for excuses is over. Think service — and while you are already thinking, challenge yourself to improve the level of service while you also consider self-service options for customer needs. We are changed species: COVID-19 did more to disrupt the world than any other event of most of our lifetimes. It only makes sense that organizations must evolve at even a quicker pace – especially on the customer service front.

Tina Hamilton is president and CEO of myHR Partner Inc., a Lehigh Valley human resources outsourcing firm that manages HR for clients in 34 states. She can be reached at tina@myhrpartnerinc.com.