Five Long-Term Business Lessons the Pandemic Taught Us
THE PAST 12 MONTHS have, by any estimation, been challenging for businesses. Many have been fighting for survival. Others faced unanticipated difficulties as demand surged. For businesses of all kinds, the pandemic has laid bare omissions in strategy and deficiencies in process. After months of scrambling madly to fill the gaps, we now have a clear set of lessons companies must address to thrive in a period of prolonged uncertainty—and beyond.
1. E-commerce must be an integral part of business strategy and operations. Selling online is nothing new. We’ve been figuring out how to do it since the 1990s. The past year has taught us, however, that commerce will not perform well if it’s separate from brick-and-mortar or other “traditional” business operations. A side effort or hobby project doesn’t cut it. For B2C companies, e-commerce must be an integral part of a comprehensive strategy for selling, regardless of the venue. Only by thinking holistically about customers, stock, locations, and channels can operations be flexible enough to adapt and streamlined enough to be efficient.
For many B2B organizations, the lesson has been even more fundamental: E-commerce is in fact a necessity. Business customers facing their own urgent priorities don’t want to waste time. They can’t afford to wait for in-person sales processes that have been hampered by sales teams navigating remote working with insufficient tools and limited communication. The gap between expectations of consumer purchases and those of commercial purchases has narrowed tremendously. B2B companies can no longer afford to operate without some form of e-commerce capabilities.
2. Making it easy for customers to buy spans both online commerce and in-person sales. In B2B and complex B2C sales, direct sales teams play an essential role. They act as communication channels, customer advocates, and sources of critical information. While e-commerce systems have become crucial sales outlets, they have not and will not replace sales teams. Businesses with e-commerce systems and sales teams must anticipate customer journeys so they can leverage both in concert. The focus should be on making it easy for customers to buy, whatever their preferences for how to do so.
3. Customer service forms an essential line of communication—and not just after purchase. For many companies, the most consistent source of customer interaction has become customer service. These invaluable sources of customer insight don’t just happen once a purchase has been made. Increasingly, customer service teams are helping support customers within the purchase process. With limited opportunities for in-store or in-person conversations, service teams have become the most visible face many businesses have to their customers. Fulfilling this responsibility requires some substantial upskilling and retooling of customer service teams.
4. Marketing that’s disconnected from other customer interactions doesn’t work. Just as e-commerce, sales, and customer service must be coordinated to be truly effective, that coordination must include marketing. Customers no longer have patience (if they ever did) for promotions that are out of line with available stock, for example. They disregard messages that come across as insincere or out of touch.
More importantly, sales and customer service—since they are the ones in direct communication with customers—should be part of the marketing program. They have a unique opportunity to tailor marketing messages and promotions to individual customers based on what they know, firsthand, about customers’ needs and priorities. That means improving internal communications around marketing campaigns and developing supporting materials accordingly. It also points to the feedback loop that should be informing marketing decisions and priorities in the first place.
5. It’s time to rethink roles and reshape organizations. As most of the lessons above demonstrate, the boundaries that have long existed between departments and roles are blurring—a lot. What distinguishes whether an employee is in sales or customer service? Increasingly, it’s the question the customer poses to them. A wide-ranging perspective on customer journeys points to different ways of organizing people, managing assets, and investing in tools to improve the customer experience and drive business results. There are big changes to come, with big prospects for improving what best-practice business operations look like.
Too many times in this pandemic, customers have found themselves with money in hand and a pressing need or desire to buy. But they’ve been met by obstacles to making purchases or completing transactions. That’s a massive failure for any business—all the more so in times like these. We can and must do better, for our customers and for ourselves.
L. Nicole France is principal analyst and vice president at Constellation Research. Over the course of 20 years as both analyst and marketer, she has helped customers harness technology to improve customer engagement and drive business results.