Saying ‘no’, nicely
Many businesses have become ‘gatekeepers’ during COVID-19, prioritising public health over profit. But there are strategies to keeping customers happy while sticking to the pandemic rules
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the priorities of many businesses both in Australia and around the world, not least those at the frontline in retail and hospitality.
On top of social distancing and extra hygiene, these businesses now have to prioritise health and safety, which means turning away potential customers instead of serving as many as possible to make a profit.
This has included limiting customer numbers to the new lower capacity limits, saying no to customers from hotspot areas, requiring that customers check in with a QR code and other changes to what we’d consider business-as-usual in pre-pandemic customer service.
This is something we, in the area of management research, call gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping is found in many sectors: the media, banking, tertiary education, and even the velvet rope outside the nightclub door.
Gatekeepers are the people who assess who is ‘in’, and who is ‘out’. And it’s not always an easy role.
We’ve seen store owners trying to enforce new health and safety measures facing threats and hostility. One security guard in the US was shot after asking a customer to put on a required face mask and a French bus driver attacked after refusing to let a group of people who were not wearing face masks on board.
While most cases are not this extreme, examples like this are why jobs where gatekeeping is a regular practice have a set of standard responses. These aim to help insulate the staff who are making these decisions, ranging from standard rejection letters from universities to mandatory ID checks for entry into bars.
So how can new gatekeepers get it right – particularly now? Our research may provide some ideas.
Flippers and dealers
Gatekeeping is particularly important in the rarefied realms of art dealing.
Here, the tastemakers who buy the art can become almost as important as the artist creating it. And the person who owns or runs the art gallery – known as a gallerist – is the one controlling the gates.
We interviewed and surveyed fine art gallerists in the high-value international art market in New York and London to find out what they look for in a buyer.
Gallerists look to stop problematic customer types like ‘flippers’ – those who buy and sell art quickly in order to make a profit – but they mainly focused on enhancing the careers of their artists by identifying preferred customers.
They practice what we call ‘strategic placement’. They are seeking to sell to collectors who are “serious” and try to place the artworks in “collections where they will make an impact”.
So, what can other businesses outside of the art world learn from these strategies?
The ‘good’ gatekeeper
Usually, when we talk about gatekeeping, we focus on the initial point of contact – does a customer have a good enough credit rating to apply for a loan, or a high enough score to get into a university?
It also means turning down clients with a perceived conflict of interest.
Gatekeeping is particularly important when decisions have a moral impact. Picture a psychologist turning away clients because they have a prior relationship, or animal breeders blocking buyers who they think could be cruel.
Of course, companies can also be poor gatekeepers, as we’ve seen with credit card companies and banks overselling credit products.
So, how can businesses like restaurants or retailers be good gatekeepers during the pandemic?
Simple policies are best. A clear, written policy is helpful for frontline staff who might be faced with potential hostility, as well as a concise set of exclusionary criteria that can be assessed with an ID check. Our current QR code system acts as a type of digital gatekeeper, although staff often need to provide that extra layer of protection by reminding customers to check-in.
Taking a cue from the art dealers – it’s also important to have a variety of ways to say no. Nicely.
Prominent art gallerists often have strategies that enable them to politely decline wealthy potential customers that are not used to hearing the word no, but done correctly, this might still lead to a later sale.
That said, it’s important for businesses to continue to monitor customer behaviour after their initial entry.
For example, if an art buyer engages in flipper behaviour with an artwork, they might be blacklisted by the gallery for future sales. For less serious offences, buyers might be offered less premium work or get bumped down on a waiting list for a popular artist.
Our suggestions for Australian businesses who now need to practice gatekeeping with their customers include:
Emphasising the preferred type of customers – for example, those “outside of hotspots” – while also reminding people about current restrictions that may prevent them from visiting.
- Standardising the categories or reasons to say no, preferably in ways that are clear to customers, like a license check.
- Use a waiting list to fairly manage excess demand— it’s not a ‘no’ but rather a ‘not yet’.
- Working on a private system of ‘strikes’, which allows businesses to escalate gatekeeping behaviour gradually in response to any problems.
So, while the exotic world of the international art market provides many colourful stories, it also gives businesses a set of different strategies that might be useful with the important but difficult task of gatekeeping during the pandemic.