A picture of the business landscape in February 2020 would have revealed a blur of rapid change. The most progressive companies were rushing to embrace digital transformation and AI to adapt to changing customer expectations. Then came a pandemic. In a crisis, businesses rarely have the luxury of making sweeping, future-focused changes until they’ve tackled short-term challenges. The problem is, COVID-19 isn’t a momentary disruption on our journey to a digitally transformed future. While uncertainties remain, this crisis has delivered a significant leap into the future we’d been preparing for. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “We saw two years of digital transformation in two months.”
While life will change after the pandemic, so will customers and businesses. Digital expectations won’t go backwards. Responding in the near term with operational efficiency-focused measures is necessary, of course, but we must also prepare to compete in the long run. The nebulous threats we were heading off in February (new disruptors, competition, etc.) have been eclipsed by one overriding concern: Customers expect—no, require—that your business meets their evolving needs.
The companies that are positioning themselves for success now and into this new future have one thing in common: They’re willing to build an infrastructure that can keep pace with change. How do you do it? Data, tools, technologies, processes and mindset are all important. But perhaps of foremost importance is your approach to people: Ensure that you meet customers where they are, inspire employees to embrace change and get the right help from partners. People are the secret to winning your digital future.
Customers require digital touchpoints right now, but they’ll continue to expect them after the crisis. Nothing illustrates this point better than telehealth’s explosive growth. At NYU Langone, non-urgent virtual care visits grew by an incredible 4,345% between March 2 and April 14 of 2020. Two-thirds of consumers who try telehealth say they’d be more willing to use it again. We’ve long known that the positive experiences patients have had with telemedicine suggested that its growth was inevitable, but the pandemic forced adoption to increase at a breathtaking pace.
This dynamic is playing out across other industries as consumers expand their use of online shopping and adopt grocery delivery, curbside pickup, advanced home exercise equipment, video conferencing, online training and more. Obviously, if a customer’s interaction with your business can be digital, it should be, but don’t stop there. Personalization is just as critical. Customers want timely, relevant information. They’ve grown accustomed to Netflix or Facebook, where algorithms make suggestions that lead their consumption. The trick is to use AI to personalize at the most granular level possible. The need for greater sensitivity and responsiveness will enhance the customer experience during volatile times. Every digital touchpoint in your business, whether new or legacy, should be optimized for the best experience possible because remember, you’re not creating a stopgap. You’re building new capabilities that will help you meet your future customers.
Such adaptations aren’t limited to B-to-C. Buyers in the B-to-B world are evolving their journeys, too. They’re increasingly channel agnostic, meaning they care more about the experience that they have with a company than the methods they use to interact with them. This is driving sellers to find ways to implement omnichannel solutions so that customers will have similar experiences whether they call, text, email, engage over social media or with a chatbot. B-to-B buyers want information in a timely manner as they navigate their purchase cycles, so sales organizations must be agile in adapting to their preferences. Finding ways to deliver the most relevant information implies leveraging digital tech. Digital solutions drive this change. For example, chatbots are increasingly being used on B-to-B websites to help orient and identify potential clients.
Change is hard for everyone, even during less disruptive times. Adding technology adoption into the mix means humans must change their behaviors and learn new tools. If those tools involve AI, or if humans are asked to work alongside AI, add fear and distrust to the mix. This confluence of crisis and resistance presents both challenges and opportunity. It’s challenging because the pandemic makes it harder to engage in effective change communications. It’s an opportunity because teams are adapting to changes in their own personal lives. They’re already in an adaptive mindset.
Now is the time to structurally reimagine processes to maximize AI’s potential. Using AI to do business differently isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. It’s not a matter of looking at your business processes and just adding AI. This is about putting together a diverse team to rethink how your business operates with AI in mind. It’s about using an architecture mindset instead of a feature mindset. The arrival of AI is much like the arrival of mobile technology. Companies that made their existing websites viewable on a smartphone created a worse customer experience than competitors that redesigned digital customer interactions with mobile in mind. It’s the same with AI. We must reexamine our entire business model from top to bottom and use AI to help us fundamentally rethink how we do business.
Automation can be a great way to drive efficiency and free up your people to deliver more strategic value, but it needs to be approached with caution and care. Simply automating a process by replacing a human with a robot or robotic process optimization can mean missing an opportunity to reconceive the process itself. Building a robot that can play hundreds of CDs in your collection isn’t as effective as rethinking music players and inventing the iPod. Replacing cashiers with robots is much more expensive and a worse customer experience than Amazon’s concept of a cashierless grocery store. Also, be careful to keep humans involved to preserve empathy that might improve the customer experience. Without humans in the loop, organizations will struggle to drive improvements and innovations in automated processes.
If it sounds difficult for any company to tackle on its own, that’s because it is. Disruptive innovation almost never comes from within. In Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Timble’s book, The Other Side of Innovation, they argue that successful in-house innovation must happen in its own bubble, removed from the existing business and driven by a different mindset. In other words, we should either be retraining part of our company to function like outsiders or working with actual outsiders. In this crisis, we would argue that we don’t have the time to go it alone.
What products already exist that you can use? Are there firms that have a proven track record of driving digital transformation in truly innovative ways? Have they struck a balance between driving innovation and minimizing risk? Do they have a firm grasp on the commercial implications? One avenue is to negotiate mutually beneficial partnerships with tech companies that allow you to leverage their innovation in exchange for your industry expertise. Such agreements must be thoughtful, clearly defined and mutually beneficial. Avoid funding a vanity project. It may be tempting to tell the world that you’re partnering with Google, but if it amounts to nothing, you will have raised expectations while wasting valuable time.
Don’t fall into the trap of seeing innovation in other firms, hiring people who led those innovations and expecting the same results in yours. Culture drives innovation more than a candidate’s resume. If your culture doesn’t inspire innovation, your new innovators will be stifled by it. If you drive your own transformation, consider starting a separate organization that can stay at arm’s length from the mother organization. Give it a different culture. Charge them with thinking of ways to disrupt your business and scaling those disruptions across the enterprise. But be warned. The moment calls for speed and flexibility. Pre-made solutions, outside teams you can hire or fire quickly and partnerships that can multiply your capabilities are infinitely faster and more flexible than a DIY approach.
Digital transformation and AI were the keys to unlocking the future before the pandemic and they remain so, but we must not forget that technology’s primary purpose is to serve humankind. As you rush to meet your future, be sure that it will meet your customers’ future as well. As you transform your workforce and automate roles, do so carefully to preserve your company’s humanity and keep your teams energized and innovating. As you push through change in your organization, be patient and empathetic with the people who must adapt in your organization, and where your organization can’t adapt, partner with others that can shore up your weaknesses. For leaders who are intimidated by the magnitude of change needed, take comfort: In an age driven by technology so advanced that it can drive itself, your business is still all about people and relationships.