Lessons digital leaders can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic

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Although it’s tempting to see COVID-19 as having brought about one-time changes that demanded our attention, it’s more likely that the pandemic will herald an era of constant change. Without a doubt, the COVID spring of 2020 brought change at an unprecedented scale. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before, and the impact was felt in every industry, and by nearly every worker and customer.

“Looking to the future, we should expect this to continue and constantly look around the corner for what’s next,” notes Cynthia Stoddard, SVP and CIO of Adobe. “The overarching lesson from the pandemic is that digital leaders need to view their business as a ‘living enterprise,’ constantly responding to stimuli, aligning with emerging trends, and anticipating changes in how customers interact with them.”

...digital leaders need to view their business as a ‘living enterprise’...

Cynthia Stoddard

It’s likely that the pace of change will slow in the near term as we all become more skilled in responding to the changes resulting from COVID, but there is no finish line. Digital leaders must be agile and build an organization that embraces change and manages it effectively, regardless of its scale.

In addition to adopting “Change is a constant” as a mantra, there are other lessons to be learned from the pandemic that will impact how organizations use the digital systems that define both the customer experience (CX) and the firm. The three points below are less about which technology to choose, and more about how digital systems must act.

1. Support for the collective good: Overcoming the crisis became a collective effort arising from the realization that everyone is in this together, giving birth to a desire to better support good causes in the post-pandemic era. Digital systems are now a critical means of showing corporate commitment to the greater good. To paraphrase Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, “If Microsoft is doing well, that means we’re creating productivity for that small business somewhere in the world. A multinational that’s becoming more productive, employing more people, creating jobs. Public sector is becoming more efficient. Educational outcomes, health outcomes are getting better. That alignment, where we do well if we can drive good outcomes for communities and societies and countries around us—that, to me, is at the center of it.” Focusing on the collective good is almost mandatory when targeting millennials and Generation Z.

Successful firms are looking at their CX and asking, “What good can we bring?” Creativity can help a brand find a new or unique way to demonstrate its support of the collective good that will stand out in the market and help it gain traction. Some startups have made this part of their business model. Bombas is an excellent example of a brand that was founded on the idea that any customer purchase automatically results in a societal benefit; it donates a pair of socks identical to what a customer purchased.

2. Permanent change to lifestyles: Before the pandemic, it’s safe to say that many people were likelier to make risky and unhealthy lifestyle choices. But the spread of the disease made it clear that a single bad choice by someone can result in catastrophic illness for that person or their loved ones. As a result, many people who once flirted with risk started to focus on making healthier lifestyle choices. They’ve been exposed to new ideas and new activities, resulting in lifestyle changes that present brands with new ways to engage. For example, people are spending more time at home and preferring to entertain there, they’re developing new criteria for deciding whether they should attend a mass event, and they’re relying more on their immediate circle of friends and family.

Brands need to follow two different avenues to respond to this new reality. On the one hand, they’re learning how to attract new customers from among those whose changing behavior is causing them to look for new brands, products, or services that can support their new lifestyle choices. On the other, they’re discovering how to win back customers who have come to see their brand as no longer fitting with a more “aware” lifestyle. What a brand learns will depend on what it offers. This change also puts more emphasis on doing CX analyses that can help the brand understand how to personalize the experience for each of the two groups in the most appropriate manner.

3. The reality of omnichannel: During the pandemic, many items were in short supply or sold out. To find scarce commodities, consumers have learned to shop anywhere and everywhere. They’ve bought groceries from restaurants, isopropyl alcohol from distilleries, and toilet paper from closed school districts. This has resulted in a permanent change to an omnichannel mindset. Consumers immediately merged the physical and digital worlds to get what they needed. According to Omnisend, marketers using three or more channels in any one campaign earned a 287% higher purchase rate than those using a single-channel campaign. This will put new demands on every B2C and many B2B businesses to implement and deliver on an omnichannel strategy.

Physical retailers made rapid changes to move to a 100% digital commerce reality during the pandemic shutdown. However, digital-only companies also learned from fulfillment problems and sub-optimal CX events that they too needed to do more to become omnichannel businesses. The criticality of the omnichannel experience results in a competitive advantage for brands with an effective omnichannel CX. Strong omnichannel systems will also provide greater insight on new ways to serve customers as the distinction between channels ebbs.

The impact of COVID-19 has been so far-reaching that it is hard to see beyond it in any clear-eyed way. Yet getting to the other side and meeting new customer demands will require learning the key lessons that the pandemic has wrought.

As Stoddard notes, “The starting point is to view the business as a living enterprise and not a static entity. Digital trends are going to be accelerated in areas where people need to change their business models to be competitive, and efforts that would traditionally be scoped out to take months might get done in weeks due to us working in a different manner.”

In addition, long-term behavioral changes will require a response from brands. Almost everyone has been forced to change behaviors, their perspective on key life choices, and how they see themselves going forward. For all of these reasons, enterprises need to update the digital systems that interact with customers to meet new demands.

The chances that things will go back to how they were in January 2020 are non-existent.