The four imperatives emerging from the pandemic and what to do about them

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Over the last few months, we have faced some extraordinary challenges, and I’ve watched with fascination how the pandemic has forced the tectonic plates of consumer and organizational behavior to shift and change.

Reflecting on the shifts that are unfolding I believe that several different challenges and imperatives are emerging that we need to pay attention to as we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic, maintain customer service and experience standards and start to plan for what lies beyond.

The four imperatives that organizations need to embrace concern learning, protection, resilience and experience.

Let’s explore each in turn but start with learning.

Learning

Now, as the pandemic has evolved, many leaders have been saying that organizations need to be more agile if they are to survive this period and go on to thrive.

They are probably right.

But, the challenge is that often when the word agile is used, in modern business, the conversation can quickly get reduced to talk of sprints and scrums. As such, the real need and requirement can get lost.

It seems that the difference between those organizations that will succeed and thrive and those that will falter will come down to not who masters a process but who learns the most. And, who does that at scale and at speed for the benefit of both their customers, their employees and their organizations.

Consider Mr Cooper, a non-bank mortgage servicer in the US. They built a digital forbearance platform in 48 hours to support around 140 thousand borrowers who were struggling to pay their mortgage. They also did this after going almost entirely remote at the start of the pandemic. According to Neenu Kainth, Mr Cooper’s Chief Digital Officer, this type of endeavour would typically have taken two weeks. But, speed and necessity took precedence over extensive consumer testing, legal and compliance due diligence.

However, once the platform was live, they managed those risks by learning and adjusting what was working and what was not every three hours through the use of real-time data.

This is a massive effort by the team at Mr Cooper, and they should be applauded.

But, what about when the requirement is less well defined?

Carl Tsukahara, Chief Marketing Officer at Optimizely, a provider of customer experience optimization software, thinks that this type of situation is becoming the norm. He believes that “ongoing uncertainty related to the pandemic makes it nearly impossible for brands to guess how customers will behave in a few months and how many more changes we will see in customer behavior in the years to follow. Since economic forecasts have shown that a rapid return to “normal” is unlikely for nearly every industry, it’s vital for brands to remain agile to changing customer behaviors and market conditions.”

As a result, Tsukahara believes that the only way that organizations will successfully navigate this period of uncertainty is if they embrace an iterative test and learn approach.

Harvard Business School professor, Stefan Thomke, supports this idea and provides evidence that this type of approach has worked for some of the fastest and most successful companies over recent years in his new book, Experimentation Works. In the book, he shows that a ‘bundle’ of what he calls ‘Experimentation Organizations’, that includes Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Netflix and Booking.com, have out-performed the S&P 500 by a factor of 10 over the last ten years by harnessing and developing experimentation as a key organizational skill.

As the inimitable Tom Peters says “Whoever Tries The Most Stuff Wins”.

Now, it’s important to point out here that the learning imperative does not just apply to how organizations respond to changing and new customer behavior; it will also affect every other part of our businesses.

The bottom line then is that the future of our organizations will be defined by our ability to learn.

Protection

The second imperative is protection.

This comes on the back of the fact that we know that there is an economic tightening coming. With that aggregate demand will soften and competition for customers pounds, dollars and euros will undoubtedly intensify.

Now, many firms will try and sell their way out of this situation. But, that would run counter to the evidence that customers are responding more favorably to organizations that are helpful and are being of value rather than those that are focused on just generating new sales.

There are signs that CEOs are getting this. In a recent conversation with Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight, a customer success platform provider, he told me that they surveyed a number of CEOs in May about their biggest priorities for the rest of this year. 100% of respondents said that retaining customers was their number one priority, and generating new sales was at the bottom of their priority list.

Other CEOs should heed these results and resist the temptation to try and sell their way out of trouble when the economic pinch comes. As the evidence suggests, customer behavior has shifted during this pandemic, and there is little evidence that this will change as its effects play out.

So, organizations should double down on protecting and nurturing their current client base and use that as their growth engine.

Resilience

The third imperative is resilience.

At the onset of this pandemic, many organizations made a rapid move to remote working wherever possible. Now we are seeing organizations start to consider what a future operating model will look like.

What is becoming clear is that many organizations will adopt a hybrid model with many operating via a dynamic mix of remote and on-site working to allow them to manage costs, employee preferences, business needs, flexibility and to build resilience into their system.

How this is structured remains to be seen. But, any new operating model should encompass an element of push and pull dynamics to accommodate the changing needs of both the employee and the business.

Brian Berns, CEO of Knoa Software, believes that user experience management software can play an important part in this. Where it can add the most value is by helping decide who should and needs to work on-site or remotely with its ability to highlight who is struggling, who is being productive and who needs extra support or training.

This would need to be handled both sensitively and ethically and should not be used to surveil individuals. Thankfully, Berns reports that “most companies obscure the data [they collect] to keep users anonymous. They only react when they see more than one person is having trouble with a certain step in their workflow”.

These types of tools are likely to become increasingly useful because, unfortunately, the reality is that there will be future crises. Whether they are as a result of natural disasters, climate change, terror attacks, health crises, social disruption, or something else we haven’t thought of or prepared for there will be another crisis.

So, the development of this type of hybrid model will ensure that organizations will develop a much-needed resilience into their system to be able to adapt to whatever challenges the future will throw at them.

Again it’s important to point out that the resilience imperative does not just apply to the operating models organizations will employ going forward. It will also affect other parts of our businesses, including how resilient is the supply chain, how resilient are our people and how resilient are the relationships that we have with our customers.

Experience

The fourth and final (for now) imperative is experience.

This imperative features four different dimensions.

The first dimension is the customer experience.

This will remain a differentiating factor in the marketplace. But, what we are also seeing are signs of a re-calibration of many experience efforts to focus on more pragmatic solutions that reflect our changing reality.

More importantly, however, all customer experience efforts will need to be tied to the improvement of business objectives and outcomes. Failure to do so in the face of an impending economic tightening will mean that Forrester’s prediction that up to 25% of customer experience professionals will lose their jobs in 2020 could end up looking conservative.

The second dimension is the employee experience.

The changes to organizations operating models is fundamentally changing the experience of employees and is requiring organizations to rethink their employee experience completely.

Nick Misewicz, Customer Success Manager at Pura Vida Bracelets understands this. In a recent podcast interview, he told me how they have successfully responded to the changing conditions and in doing so have been able to both maintain customer satisfaction standards and employee morale and well-being throughout this period. Their efforts have included:

  • Making sure their support agents had the right devices and internet availability at home. They even offered to pay to have everyone’s internet upgraded to ensure everyone had a business level of connectivity.
  • In discussion with their remote support team, they agreed to up their quality assurance (QA) and customer satisfaction KPIs and scrutiny to make sure that they were achieving consistency and maintaining a high level of performance.
  • In parallel, they upped their level of one-on-one coaching for their agents to once a day to improve their support of them.
  • They are hyper communicating with their team around the likely impact of the virus.
  • They also went to great lengths to understand as much as they could about their agents home working environment. That helped them make sure that their agents were developing a good new home working routine that included taking breaks and making sure that they remembered to go to lunch.
  • As a result, their NPS score has stuck at 83 out of 100 while their CSAT score has remained at 4.8/4.9 out of 5.

What Pura Vida has done is great, but the employee experience will become ever more complicated as organizations adopt a new and probably hybrid operating model.

Moreover, when we consider the needs of new-joiners and areas like talent development and the experience of agencies, freelancers and contractors which many organizations rely on for the delivery of their customer experience the need to reassess and redesign the employee experience becomes acute.

The third is an emerging dimension, and one that considers stakeholder experience.

Purpose and the social impact of organizations have been rising up the business agenda for some time now. However, research from Edelman conducted during the initial onset of the pandemic showed that 90% of customers from across the world believe that, “Brands must do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and their suppliers”. And, if they don’t then 71% of global consumers say that brands “will lose my trust forever” and this will have a massive impact on their likelihood to buy from that brand again in the future. And, as mentioned before, there is little evidence that that consumer sentiment is going to change any time soon.

However, the pandemic has not been the only issue that has put corporate behavior under the microscope. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and movement have also shone a light on discrimination, injustice and inequality and businesses are now being held to account in terms of how they respond.

These examples highlight, I believe, the start of a broader trend where customers and employees are starting to expect organizations to exercise their agency in the face of societal challenges, such as climate change, and to address systemic issues, particularly around discrimination, injustice and inequality.

Therefore, I believe, it will become increasingly important for organizations to explicitly consider the experience of their stakeholders if they are to retain the trust and loyalty of both their customers and their employees.

The fourth and final dimension is again an emerging one and considers the experience of leaders whether they are in the C-suite, middle management or team leaders of front-line staff, particularly as they have come under massive strain in recent months.

One could suggest that this dimension is a subset of the overall employee experience. However, I think it deserves specific attention given the changing operating environment and the era of uncertainty that we now find ourselves in.

At the beginning of the pandemic, much of the talk was on how ‘leaders’ at all levels should focus on supporting their team members.

But, as things progressed, it struck me: Who was focused on supporting them? Are they OK? How are they coping? And, did they have the right sort of skills to flourish and thrive in this new environment?

Well, in May, The Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed 1,200 managers working remotely in the UK and found that:

  • Almost a third reported that the greater flexibility, lack of commute and more time with their family had improved their mental health. However, 20 per cent said that their mental health had deteriorated.
  • 42 per cent reported that they felt increasingly isolated during the period of lockdown or shelter in place with this being more acutely felt by men living alone (79 per cent) compared to women living alone (56 per cent).
  • Meanwhile, 44 per cent reported that they had been working longer hours while working remotely; and
  • Finally, nearly a third of working mothers, that did not have a support network, said that they were unable to take adequate breaks when working.

These are not isolated findings with McKinsey highlighting the strains that CEOs are facing and Gallup highlighting a drop in engagement over the last few months with the most significant drop coming from leaders and managers.

Now, some organizations are well prepared for these challenges. Dean Robison of ServiceNow told me a story about how Bill McDermott on taking over the helm at ServiceNow instigated a new leadership development and investment programme at all levels of the business. That decision looks incredibly prescient now as Robison recently told me that leaders and managers at ServiceNow feel well placed, well supported and well equipped to deal with and thrive in this changing environment.

However, that will not be the case at all organizations. Thus, the changing nature of the experience of leaders at all levels deserves attention.

Within that, I would suggest that organizations pay particular attention to the middle manager and front line team leaders who historically have not received the attention and investment that other leaders have.

So, there we have it: four imperatives (learning, protection, resilience and experience). These are not stand-alone issues but are all interconnected and inform each other. But, I believe, that organizations need to pay attention to and embrace all of them if they are to survive this pandemic, navigate their way through it, maintain competitiveness and customer service and experience standards and start to plan for what lies beyond.

This post was originally published on Forbes.com.

Image by André Zivic from Pixabay

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