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Revel Coffee delivery driver Jason Sermonia passes an order to a customer at the end of his route before returning to downtown Stratford, Ont., on May 22, 2021.

JUSTIN LANGILLE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When COVID-19 struck last year, Anne Campion, a former opera singer and owner of Revel Coffee Inc. in Stratford, Ont., was determined to keep bringing her products to the community she loves.

Pre-pandemic, the coffee shop was popular in this theatre town for its welcoming vibe, where you might find yourself sipping your ethically sourced Americano next to Othello at the big communal table.

Three lockdowns and varying provincial colour-coded rules later, it’s open for takeout and delivery only. But good customer service still requires personal connections, whether it’s beautiful handwritten notes with special-occasion deliveries, staff chatting with regulars behind masks and Plexiglas, or attention-grabbing photos and video updates on social media.

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Maintaining or boosting sales during a pandemic requires creativity and agility. Early days, when everyone took up baking, Revel competed by offering frozen laminated dough to help customers make croissants at home (a challenging product to DIY with all those layers of butter). It also added free contactless delivery of coffee beans so customers could enjoy a great cup of joe with those freshly baked croissants.

David Campion prepares to deliver Revel Coffee's lightning brunch service to customers throughout Stratford, on May 22, 2021.

JUSTIN LANGILLE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

For Ms. Campion, customer service is guided by her mission that every decision has to be made for the good of the community, locally and globally. From its start more than a decade ago, Revel has supported direct-trade coffee growers as well as local farmers, producers and the community.

“It’s not just about me and not just about the customer – it’s about us collectively,” Ms. Campion says. “It’s why we have a Black Lives Matter poster in our window, and it will stay there. It’s why I serve on our BIA (business improvement association). There’s a commitment to growing this community to be reflective of and welcoming for everyone. That’s why we’re in business.”

Grace Ayoub, a managing director for consumer goods industry at Montreal-based consulting firm Accenture Canada, says personal service has changed during the pandemic. For businesses, it’s more about the values people associate with a company and less about transactional. For instance, customers may want to know whether a company is sustainable or how it’s taking care of its employees.

“More and more what we’ve seen during the pandemic is that people are looking to shop with a more human side, something the pandemic has taught us,” Ms. Ayoub says. “There’s a rise in sympathy for local companies as people have been spending more with them and those companies have been providing good service. That’s a trend that really changed with the pandemic and will likely stick around.”

A regular customer confirms a pickup time for the dishes in her lightning brunch box, delivered by Revel Coffee.

JUSTIN LANGILLE/the globe and mail

The other side of personal service is more practical. Is it a good quality product? Was the transaction easy and convenient? According to a May, 2021 Accenture Research survey, more than 70 per cent of consumers say convenience is more important than ever.

“There’s been a 300-per-cent increase in online shopping and that automatically generates a need for technology,” Ms. Ayoub says. “Companies no longer need to just invest in their physical spaces, they need to make sure the online experience is stellar. That’s more than just your website, but making sure that your whole supply chain works very well.”

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Étienne Mérineau, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Heyday.ai, a Montreal tech company that provides chatbot software and a conversational artificial intelligence platform for retailers, says the paradigm of how we shop has shifted with the pandemic. That’s really changing the game for any type of business, where the main point of contact and interaction with customers used to be in-store or in-person.

“Personalization is the Holy Grail, and you need technology to achieve that,” Mr. Mérineau says. “We can connect in-store associates with online shoppers directly via live chat or video chat, and we have AI technology that acts as a first line of defence to triage the conversations and escalate them to the right people.”

How effective is that? On the sales side, Mr. Mérineau says one of the largest furniture chains in Quebec made nearly $4-million in sales using Heyday’s live chat at the beginning of the pandemic when all its stores were closed. On the customer service side, the challenge is how to meet the sudden increased demand of the traffic and number of questions coming in from live chat on the website.

“We’ve seen an increase of 300 to 800 per cent on average, based on our client portfolio of the inbound traffic, so teams weren’t ready to respond to that pressure,” Mr. Mérineau says. “Adding AI technology helps a business manage repetitive questions and keep on providing good service without breaking the bank.”

He cites another client, Popeye’s Supplements Canada, a national sports nutrition retailer, as an example where the business was able to save significantly on customer service costs and repurpose staff to be more efficient.

“When you automate a big chunk to chat, it’s a win for your budget,” Mr. Mérineau says. “But it’s also a win for the end customer because the new generation of shoppers expect to message brands the same way they message friends. Every business needs to think like a technology company now. That’s how you’ll win in the long run.”

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A birthday brunch order is delivered to a regular Revel Coffee customer.

For her part, Revel Coffee’s Ms. Campion continues to try new things. She launched “Pop up Fridays” with 10 boxes of goodies sold to the first 10 people who send a text, and Saturday brunch boxes are delivered to doorsteps for a “Revel at home” experience.

Porch pickup of the brunch dishes, napkins and reusable wooden boxes takes place in the afternoon, so there’s no work and no waste. It’s an initiative Ms. Campion hopes to continue post-pandemic for business meetings or breakfast weddings.

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