Confronted with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, a reality marked by radical changes to daily life for millions and personal tragedy for many, we are all searching for certainty and a path forward.
To move forward as businesses and communities, we need some solid footing. That’s why it’s helpful to remember that, while there are many questions about what the future might hold, there are some things that we as business leaders can say with confidence.
1. Customer experience has undergone a total digital transformation
Last summer, a Gallup survey found that only 11% of consumers bought groceries online. In the first week of April 2020, more than half of consumers (51%) reported doing so. As dramatic as that 5x increase is, the change in behavior is even more dramatic when we look at medicine. In March, the Cleveland Clinic logged 60,000 telemedicine visits. The monthly average before that was 3,400. Similarly, NYU Langone Health in New York has seen daily virtual visits climb from 50 to 900.
The digital transformation of daily life hardly stops with these common activities. In 2019 it was estimated that 7% of Americans worked from home; by early April 2020, it was estimated that nearly half (49%) of workers were working remotely. To top it off, it’s reported that 90% of schools the world over are currently closed. If class is in session today, there’s a good chance it’s happening online.
The bottom line is this: As we enter what some are calling “the contact-free economy,” digital channels increasingly serve as the primary way – in some cases, the only way – that people can access information, products and services.
2. Companies must welcome digital acceleration
People have been talking about digital transformation since the late 1990s. Since then, many companies have undertaken digital transformation initiatives, looking to a wide range of technologies to put their operating and business model on a digital footing.
These initiatives have tended to move at their own pace with the general consensus being that digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Indeed, as recently as last year, Ashley Friedlein, writing for Econsultancy, claimed that digital transformation takes five years on average. Knowing that these things take time, many organizations have lost a sense of urgency about making the digital leap.
Those days are over. The pandemic has accelerated the transformation timeline. If customers, employees and students have all gone digital, the companies that serve them will need to catch up.
And catching up starts with accepting our new digital reality.
3. Uncertainty demands agility, flexibility and resiliency
As confident as we may be about all of the above, the fact remains that we face a lot of unknowns. Obviously, we don’t know when the pandemic will end, but more importantly, we don’t know what “normal” will look like when the dust finally settles.
It seems clear that the digital habits people are developing will continue into the future. Commerce won’t become less digital, and while working from home may not become the new norm, it will definitely enjoy much broader acceptance than we saw even six months ago.
At the same time, it appears we are in for a rough ride economically. The unemployment rate in the U.S. was 3.6% in January 2020. It rose above 20% in mid-April while GDP is expected to decline 12% over the same time period.
Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor Herman “Dutch” Leonard recently said the following on leadership in times of crisis: “In unprecedented situations, effective leadership calls for a problem-solving, experimental approach. We should think of everything we’re doing as our current experiment.”
Adapting to rapidly changing situations calls for agility and flexibility. It also calls for experimentation, as Professor Leonard emphasizes. Companies need to quickly try new things, find out what works and what doesn’t, and move onto the next experiment. Part of this is experimenting with what adds educational, emotional or practical value for the customer and actually helps improve their experience during this crisis. An ongoing commitment to experimentation is the key to innovation and organizational resilience.
4. Adaptation requires openness
Adaptation in unprecedented times is the path forward. Adaptation means starting with what you know to be certain and experimenting to discover new certainties.
Adaptation also means remaining open to new possibilities and avoiding unnecessary or artificial constraints. First, this applies to operating models. There may have been reasons companies previously had strict or highly limited work-from-home policies. But those policies were driven more by fear than organizational need. As such, they’re now falling away.
It also applies to business models. Many restaurants focused on in-house dining or pick-up. Restaurants have had to move to a contact-free delivery model and have begun selling staples as well as prepared meals. A no-delivery model now essentially amounts to closing your doors.
Finally, it applies to the tools in use. When customer experience is inseparable from digital experience, no company can afford constraints on how that experience is shaped or delivered. In order to support agility and adaptation, these tools must be flexible and – above all – open.
We will be exploring some of the themes discussed here in subsequent blog posts, showing how different companies are adapting and adjusting to this new digital reality. Our sincere hope is that these examples will provide inspiration for actions you can take today to improve your relationships with customers and build a bridge to the future.