Are you dreaming of traveling this summer, after a year of pandemic living? Me too. But like most things these days, it’s complicated. As the traditional summer-travel season looms before us, health and safety factors have become a critical part of trip planning, including road trips. Throughout the pandemic, businesses along North America’s highways and interstates have had to innovate the customer experiences they deliver, and communicate that they are safe and pleasant places to take a break and fuel up, whether it’s for food, gas or both. Even before the pandemic began, women were a driving force in the health and wellness revolution of consumer goods and retail. They are also often the decision-makers and influencers – or veto votes – in determining where families stop for breaks on road trips. How have roadside businesses prepared for the upcoming travel season, while we are still in the thick of a pandemic?

To find out, I sat down (virtually) with Whitney Haslam Johnson, chief experience officer for Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel centers in North America, with more than 750 locations in 44 states and six Canadian provinces. The company serves about 1.6 million customers a day, with a retail staff of 28,000. In 2016, Pilot Flying J began a five-year, customer experience make-over to broaden the appeal of its travel centers – also known as truck stops – for both professional truck drivers and “four wheelers,” industry lingo for car drivers. The make-over was documented in my book on transforming customer experiences for women consumers. Then came COVID-19, and the company took the program to a new level.

“We’re excited for people to get back on the road and be able to come into our stores and feel safe and healthy and be able to find what they need on their road trips this summer,” says Haslam Johnson. Exceptional customer service is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to earning the business of women. What kind of customer-experience is Pilot Flying J striving to deliver? Haslam Johnson describes it in four words: safe, fast, friendly and clean. “Obviously, those words have meant more in the past year than they ever have,” she says. “What’s evolved is that we now think about the customer experience in a more 360-degree approach. We’re considering every touchpoint we have, from social media to mobile app to our in-store employees.”

Here are a few examples:

Designing for Cleanliness: In my research with women across retail categories, I’ve learned that the cleanliness of a store’s restroom is often viewed as a barometer of the cleanliness of the entire operation. This is magnified in the age of COVID-19, especially for businesses like travel centers and highway gas stations, which may be far from someone’s home and therefore unfamiliar territory. In these instances, even the perception of an unclean restroom can knock a business out of consideration. Attention to detail is critical here: women are paying attention.

The design of physical spaces can be a major contributor to cleanliness. Haslam Johnson gave me a snapshot of the type of design detail that she and her team are continually evaluating. “I was on a call the other day where we were analyzing where the soap should go (in restrooms) versus the paper-towel holder versus the dryer,” she said. “We want it to feel really clean, so we need to think about things like the impact of the water – did that mess up the mirror? Did they have to walk too far from the soap to the paper towels? We truly are thinking about all these types of details because we know the restrooms and showers are so important to a great customer experience within our business,” she adds. 

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Striking the Balance Between High Touch and Self Serve: When I conducted my book interview with Haslam Johnson in 2018, Pilot Flying J was in the process of creating open-kitchen environments in many of its stores. The goal was to create a welcoming atmosphere of roadside hospitality in which employees personally serve hot meals to customers. An atmosphere of hospitality is still the goal, though since the pandemic began, the company has added more self-serve, grab-and-go options for food and beverage. Pilot Flying J has the challenge of providing a great experience for the many professional drivers who come into its stores for a relaxing, hot meal and conversation during what might be their only break in the day, alongside the many gas consumers – regular car drivers– who want get in and out of stores as quickly as possible.

Reading the Room

Balancing the customer-experience for both types of guests – those who want to linger and discover, and those who want to get in and out – is a challenge for almost every retailer during this pandemic. Subsequently, Pilot Flying J retail employees are focused on strengthening their “situational awareness” –determining which customers seem to be in a hurry and which want to engage in a friendly chat, and engaging accordingly. 

As the company nears the end of the customer-experience makeover it began in 2016, it will soon embark on the next phase. “We’ve made a lot of progress, averaging approximately 150 stores a year,” says Haslam Johnson. “We have a project in the works that we’re calling Store of the Future, which is the next evolution of this,” she says. “It’s taking our learnings from the past five years, plus Covid, and thinking about the next five years.” 

Just as we continually upgrade our software to stay current, we must upgrade our customer experiences to stay relevant. When it comes to winning with women consumers during the pandemic, follow these rules of the road for your own business:

1) Design for Safety and Cleanliness

2) Strike the Balance Between High Touch and Self Serve

3) “Read the Room” and Connect at Your Customer’s Comfort Level

4) Do More of What’s Already Working Well for You

The make-over at Pilot Flying J provides practical examples of how to create inclusive experiences for every customer, during the pandemic and beyond.