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COVID-19 Panic: How Health Anxiety Impacts CX

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Brooke Lynch

health axiety

The travel industry remains one of the hardest-hit sectors; with lockdowns and travel bans in place, some are finding it hard to justify unnecessary air travel. Additionally, when people do choose to travel, safety concerns have become amplified, with COVID-19 cases on the rise and new strains being spotted worldwide. With these concerns, some are facing complex issues surrounding seemingly sick or non-rule abiding passengers on board. This contention can be observed across many different aspects of public life, and it represents an incredibly challenging obstacle for businesses everywhere. 

Recently, a Frontier Airlines flight attendant came under fire after a covid related incident. One passenger, on their flight Thursday out of Miami to Philadelphia, appeared to be coughing and sneezing, with some suggesting he may be sick. This is obviously an alarming presence for health-conscious passengers, and for one individual in the row behind him, it was enough to report him to the flight attendant. The concerned passenger requested to move to the back of the plane, to avoid any further exposure and decided to complain after their landing. The flight attendant proceeded to downplay his concerns and noted that air travel is public transportation and the passenger can drive if it’s a problem. When the complaining passenger noted that the coughing individual on board was likely sick, the attendant questioned how he knew he was sick, even going so far as to note that he is in fact not a doctor. 

The airline released a statement noting that Frontier has a comprehensive set of protocols that focuses on health acknowledgment for all customers. They also are one of the few airlines that actually require temperature screenings before boarding and offer enhanced cleaning of every aircraft. However, knowledge of these guidelines does not ensure that individuals won’t ever witness a person visibly coughing or sneezing during a pandemic. This instance illustrates a kind of grey area that currently exists in customer service, businesses can prepare and outline rules and regulations to help customers feel safe but it doesn’t acknowledge how an individual may feel seeing someone visibly exhibit symptoms. It’s a difficult situation on all fronts; the ‘sick’ individual may feel excluded and even shamed by others around them even if they know they have an underlying illness unrelated to COVID-19. But it also seems fair for surrounding passengers to feel unsafe if they are unaware of what’s causing these visible signs of illness. In both cases, it puts people in uncomfortable positions that may impact their experience with your brand. 

Although aircraft travel represents one of the most difficult cases (passengers can’t easily be removed mid-air unlike in a store or restaurant) this skepticism or health-related anxiety poses a difficult question for all customer service professionals. If someone passes your health screening measures but is exhibiting symptoms, it’s probably at least worth having a conversation with them to put other customers at ease. However, in doing so, will you make the customer uncomfortable or even angry? It seems unfair for every customer with seasonal allergies or underlying conditions to be frequently interrogated, but it represents a difficult point of contention that makes catering to every customer almost impossible. 

In the Frontier example, the airline representative was definitely harsh, rather than comforting the passenger and attempting to remain calm the attendant placed blame on the customer, stating that he could have traveled a different way. This is obviously not the best route if a customer has a valid complaint, it definitely would have been more beneficial to reassure the individual to hopefully improve the situation. But this becomes less clear if a customer expresses a more ambiguous claim that promotes unreasonable treatment of others around them; in these cases, then, which customers should be prioritized? Additionally, even if nobody points out a coughing customer, should businesses be proactively addressing these types of situations before they are even identified to establish a safer environment?

Another example, a colleague encountered while in a Las Vegas casino this past summer, perfectly encompasses the challenge of accommodating one customer while simultaneously addressing the health concerns of another. After a customer sat down at a blackjack table, seemingly leaning out of his seat to appear too close for one woman’s liking, she contacted a security agent demanding he move. Though he argued that he was wearing a mask and had been temperature checked, she claimed that “masks don’t work” and requested that he stay firm in his seat or leave altogether. He ultimately dismissed her point and attempted to leave her accountable for her choice to come to a casino during the pandemic. On the customer service front, security allowed the man to stay seated and found her another table, apparently to her dismay. This case represents the more ambiguous circumstances, the customer wasn’t displaying symptoms and he was sitting a fair distance away, but another customer still felt uncomfortable. In circumstances like these, it’s even harder to distinguish the ‘right’ approach when both parties are equally set on their point of view.

These examples offer a reflection on the customer service cases that go beyond simple safety restrictions; because of the pandemic both customers and employees are constantly forced to make educated decisions on what they consider safe in each moment. Not every instance will have a clear-cut answer; so working to create a safe and comforting environment for everyone involved will go a much longer way than placing blame on any one customer.