Most industries have experienced a digital disruption – adapting and evolving to meet the changing needs of customers and employees. As significant as that has been, it turns out a life-threatening, economy-stalling global pandemic is an even more powerful disruptor. Being the next tech billionaire is compelling, but for most it pales next to staying alive and protecting your loved ones and co-workers. Disruption accelerates adaptation, and we as humans are now finding both safety and opportunity in at least four ways.
Changing values and behaviors: Disruption changes what we value. During digital disruption, people elevated the values of ease, speed and convenience. During COVID-19, we have elevated safety and economic security. But beautifully, we also have elevated personal connections and empathy. We see these values behind most of the macro and micro behavior changes we are witnessing.
When values change, so do behaviors. Increased value on safety means we’re not flying, staying in hotels or eating in restaurants. We’re driving less and buying clothing for only the waist up. However, we are buying even more online, and we are picking up our groceries curbside. The desire for personal connection has us video chatting with grandma and going to drive-by birthday parties. Our increased value on empathy is reflected in all of the above, and no more so than when people make homemade masks for hospital workers, friends and family.
Accelerating digital adoption: COVID-19 has accelerated adoption of numerous digital technologies and services, taking many of them mainstream ahead of schedule. Instacart, the grocery delivery app, has seen a 450% increase in sales since December. Microsoft added 12 million new Teams users in one week in March. The pandemic forced people to adopt these digital services earlier than planned. For these companies, COVID-19 was like a time machine that brought them users earlier than expected. The question now is, “Can they can keep them?”
Stimulating innovation: The old adage goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and when that necessity is making up for lost revenue, inventions come fast. CarMax, which has been looking in the rear-view mirror at Carvana for a few years, had launched several online offerings prior to the pandemic. Given the new environment, it accelerated the rollout of online sales and introduced a contactless curbside pick-up offering two weeks after the stay-in-place order. A week later, it released an online car auction site. The question looms – can companies like CarMax sustain momentum and continue to be nimble and rapidly innovate?
Affecting policies: From the beginning, governments issued stay-in-place orders and businesses adopted work-from-home policies, but those were just the beginning. Businesses have established “Distance & Disinfecting” (D&D) teams, which are setting guidelines for how to keep employees and customers safe in retail and work environments. These D&D roles are not temporary assignments, but permanent teams charged with making customers and employees feel safe and rapidly reacting to future crises.
Business Moves in Response to the COVID-19 Disruption
Companies are moving through the COVID-19 disruption in a progression of business moves. The progression is cyclical, and different parts of your company could be navigating through different business moves at the same time, making it critical for leaders to have a clear view of where their teams are and how well they are progressing.
The four business moves of the COVID-19 disruption are:
Departure: At the beginning, when business ran as usual, leading companies took a sober, analytical approach, looking at how customer behavior was changing, identifying demand and behavior changes, and prioritizing gaps and new opportunities on which to focus.
Challenges: Leading companies then quickly redesigned products, offers, sales approaches and critical customer-experience moments to match customers’ new values and behaviors.
Transformation: Leading companies are now figuring out how to operationalize these new experiences and offers, making changes to the workforce, technology and processes that make them more effective and efficient.
Return: Now, leading companies are looking ahead and thinking strategically about how to win in the new environment. But planning ahead when we don’t know when or how this is all going to settle is difficult. What customer values and behaviors that emerged during the pandemic will persist, and which will revert back?
As companies look ahead, they are leaning on employees who are collaborative, nimble and able to work courageously in the face of ambiguity, because designing the future of customer experience isn’t about guessing what the future will be but being able to best maneuver with it as it happens.
Dan Morrison is vice president, customer experience at Joe Smith, the brand consultancy of Padilla.