Customer Experience Measurement in the Coronavirus Age: The Mechanism and Risk of Infection

Introduction

From Zoom happy hours, canceled events, concerns over how best to educate our children,  economic disruption, and caring for the victims, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and the resulting public heath requirements are changing our lives in ways both big and small, superficial and tragic.  The customer experience is certainly no exception.  Writing about effects of the pandemic, while it unfolds, is a unique challenge – as we are learning more about the virus, its health effects, mitigation strategies, and overall effects on society in real time.  Things change daily and we are all learning on the fly here.  This series of blog posts is an early attempt to discuss the effects of the pandemic on customer experience research.

Before we begin, let me stress one thing.  I am a market researcher who specializes in evaluating the customer experience.  I am not an epidemiologist or doctor, and I have no training or experience in public health.  As a result, I will refrain from expressing scientific or medical theories or opinions of my own.  Any virus related conclusions or opinions expressed in this series of posts will be from credible sources and cited in footnotes.  If at any point it appears I am drawing medical or scientific conclusions of my own, it is unintentional, and should not be regarded as such. 

The need for managers of the customer experience to understand the implications of post-SARS-CoV-2 environment will most likely survive the immediate pandemic.  Changes in customer experience management will probably assume a more permanent nature.  First, this novel coronavirus may never go completely away, but rather become endemic in our society, meaning it could be a constant presence.[1] Second, recent history suggests SARS-CoV-2 is not the only novel-corona virus we are going to face in the coming decades.  Currently there are seven know coronaviruses that infect humans – prior to 2003 there were only four.  In a relatively short period of time, three new coronaviruses have jumped from animals to humans.[2]  The number of known coronaviruses to which humans are susceptible has nearly doubled in 17 years, so it does not require a great leap of the imagination to conclude this is not the last novel virus we will need to deal with.

This pandemic and its predicted aftermath represent a moment of truth for customers and their relationship to the brand.  In an uncertain and risky environment, customers will be even more likely to build relationships with brands they trust.  Forward thinking managers of the customer experience will respond by building more mechanisms to monitor customer perceptions of safety within the in-person channel and fulfillment via expanded alternative channels.

Mechanism of Infection

What we know now is the virus appears to spread primarily through person-to-person contact, via people in close contact with each other or to a lesser extent secondary transfer off contaminated surfaces.

SARS-CoV-2 survives on most surfaces.  Touching an infected surface and touching your eye, nose or mouth represents a risk of infection by transfer.[3]  Although, recent guidance from the CDC suggests transfer is not a significance mode of transmission.[4]  That being said, high touch surfaces such as door handles, elevator buttons, POS machines, and bathroom surfaces, should still be considered a potential risk for transfer infection.  However, the main mechanism of infection is via close personal contact.

When an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or performs any other activity exhaling air, respiratory droplets are produced.  These droplets can land on the mouths or noses of people nearby, or in some circumstances, hang in the air in an aerosol form and be inhaled into the lungs.[5]  Current evidence suggests most individuals with mild to moderate symptoms can be infectious up to 10 days after symptom onset.  Further complicating this picture, it appears individuals without symptoms can be infectious even without knowing they are infected themselves.[6]

In order for customer experience managers to make informed choices about the customer experience in the post-Covid age, it is important to understand the mechanism of infection.  The infectious dose of a virus is the amount of virus a person needs to be exposed to in order to establish an infection.  The infectious dose varies depending on the virus  (the flu can cause infection after exposure to as few as 10 virus particles, others require exposure to thousands of particles to establish an infection).  Currently, the infectious dose of SARS-CoV-2 is not understood with any precision; however, some experts estimate it at a few hundred to a few thousand virus particles.[7] 

Like fire needs three things to burn (oxygen, fuel and heat), in my layman’s expression, three factors dictate Covid-19 transmission: activity, duration and proximity.

Different activities release different amounts of virus particles into the environment.  On the far end of the spectrum, a cough or sneeze releases about 200-million virus particles.  Furthermore, the force of a cough or sneeze can aerosolize these particles (thus allowing them to hang in the air for a long time), or travel across a room in an instant.  On the other end of the spectrum, breathing normally releases about 20 virus particles per minute, but with less force than a cough or sneeze.  As a result, the particles expelled by breathing will tend to be expelled at a slower speed and travel a shorter distance.  Speaking releases about 200 viral particles per minute.[8]

These rates of exposure are important in terms of understanding the time required to exceed the infectious dose threshold.  Consider the following formula:

The time required to be infected, assuming close proximity with no precautions, is the infectious dose divided by the rate the virus particles are expelled.

Assuming an infectious dose of 1,000 virus particles, very close proximity to someone speaking (close enough to inhale all the particles released by the speaker) would require 5 minutes to exceed the infectious dose:

Similarly, very close proximity to someone breathing normally would require a ten-fold increase in exposure (50 minutes):

Obviously, a single cough or sneeze with 200-million virus particles will instantly exceed the 1,000 particle threshold.

Again, currently, we do not know the infectious dose – estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand virus particles.  Therefore, the data is insufficient to determine the exact duration of time to acquire an infection.  However, public health authorities do provide guidance.

Risk of Infection

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises, that for close contact with an individual in a non-healthcare setting, 15 minutes can be used as a threshold for the time to acquire an infectious dose.[9]

Since currently we do not know SAR-CoV-2’s infectious dose, the key take away is an individual is not going to be infected by a single virus particle.  However, we are not free from risk.  We, as a society, are going to need to weigh the risks.  This will take the form of everyday people making everyday decisions about the risks they are willing to accept – both to themselves personally, and to society as a whole.  “Nothing is without risk, but you can weigh the risks. . . . It’s going to be a series of judgment calls people will make every day,” as  Dr. William Petri a professor of infectious disease at the University of Virginia Medical School, told the Washington Post. [10]

Forward-thinking customer experience brands will consider how individuals and society as a whole weigh these risks and build customer experiences around both customer expectations and responsible civic commitment.  The pandemic represents a moment of truth between brands and their customers.    Building responsible and safe customer experiences will become a core driver of trust in the brand.

Some factors individual consumers and customer experience managers will need to consider as we weigh these risks include: [11]

Distance:  At a minimum the environment and activity should allow for 6 feet separation to be maintained.

Duration:  The duration of the activity should be short enough to minimize infection risk, considering the specific activity (breathing, talking, singing, etc) and other mitigation efforts (distance, masks, ventilation, etc).

Ventilation:  Indoor venues should be well ventilated.  Outdoor venues are naturally well ventilated and, therefore, safer.

Masks:  Mask wearing by individuals will inhibit the spread of virus particles in the air. The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies).  Masks are less of a filter to protect the wearer, but they inhibit the spread of virus droplets in the air by the wearer – masks protect others.[12]

Transfer Risk:  Customers and employees should avoid unnecessary contact with high touch objects or surfaces, disinfecting surfaces and hands with hand sanitizer.

In the next post, we expand on this discussion of infection risk and mitigation strategies and look at the implications of these on the customer experience and customer experience management.


[1] “Nothing Like SARS: Researchers Warn The Coronavirus Will Not Fade Away Anytime Soon”  npr.org,  June 11, 202.  Web.  August 13, 2020.

[2] Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Dr. Amitabha Gupta “Fred Hutch and Covid-19.” August 4, 2020. Video, 10:15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaa40DflvOk&feature=youtu.be.

[3] Skinner, Michael.  “expert reaction to questions about COVID-19 and viral load”  sciencemediacentre.org, March 26, 2020.  Web. May 13, 2020.

[4] “How COVID-19 Spreads.”  CDC.gov, May 21, 2020.  Web.  May 21, 2020.

[5] “How COVID-19 Spreads.”  CDC.gov, May 21, 2020.  Web.  May 21, 2020.

[6] “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: implications for infection prevention precautions.”  who.int, July 9, 2020.  Web.  August 13, 2020.

[7] Geddes, Linda. “Does a high viral load or infectious dose make covid-19 worse?”  newscientist.com, March 27, 2020.  Web May 14, 2020.

[8] Bromage, Eric.  “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them.” Erinbromage.com, May 6, 2020.  Web. May 13 2020.

[9] “Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure.”  CDC.gov, March 30, 2020.  Web.  May 15 2020.

[10] Shaver, Katherine.  “Wondering what’s safe as states start to reopen? Here’s what some public health experts say.”  Washingtonpost.com, May 15, 2020.  Web. May 15, 2020.

[11] Shaver, Katherine.  “Wondering what’s safe as states start to reopen? Here’s what some public health experts say.”  Washingtonpost.com, May 15, 2020.  Web. May 15, 2020.

[12] “About Masks.”  CDC.gov, August 6, 2020.  Web.  August 14 2020.

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About Eric Larse

Eric Larse is co-founder of Seattle-based Kinesis CEM, LLC, which helps clients plan and execute their customer experience strategies through the intelligent use of customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping, linked with training and incentive programs. Visit Kinesis at: www.kinesis-cem.com

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