Digital Innovation, Remote Work, and Trusted Relationships Will Spearhead the Pandemic Economy
Nobody will dispute that the coronavirus has transformed the way businesses operate and people interact. In an era of mandated social distancing and complete economic disruption, companies, their employees, and consumers have been forced to rapidly adopt new ways of engaging in every facet of life. Our favorite shops and restaurants are shuttered, at least for on-premises visits; trips are canceled; and communication with extended family and friends is now largely relegated to web conferencing. The impact of the pandemic is still revealing itself. We may never fully return to the state of “normal” that we all knew before the pandemic. And we may not know the full effects of this crisis for decades.
Amid the disruption and turmoil, there are also glimmers of hope emanating from this new normal. We’re seeing firsthand how entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes are relying on instinct, sheer will, and that old standby—human ingenuity—to find a path forward. The changes they are implementing, and the lessons they are learning, will reshape business for years, if not generations.
The stark reality is that there will not be a return to normal. As a society, we have no choice but to adapt to the circumstances as they present themselves. If this means working from home, so be it. If we can’t attend professional sports, we will root for our teams remotely. And if we can’t safely shop at the mall, we’ll make our purchases online. The one constant is that nothing is constant. All of us—technology providers, businesses, and consumers—must collectively work together to find new solutions if we are to reach the other side of the pandemic.
When the government moved to shut everything down, there was little warning. Businesses had two simple choices: adapt or wither. And that’s when the creativity kicked in. Regardless of the sector, there are endless examples of how entrepreneurs made drastic changes to remain in business. Restaurants modified menus and implemented online ordering and “no-touch” delivery and takeout to keep social distancing intact. Auto dealers are adopting contactless test driving and adding support to online car configuration tools. Investment advisers who are unable to physically meet with clients began using digital tools to help them make financial decisions.
Ironically, enterprises have been pushing customers into digital transformation for years, recognizing its cost-efficiency and ability to create a 360-degree view of the customer that can be leveraged in many ways to boost revenue and profit. And now with the pandemic upon us, the pace for digital customer engagement has been massively accelerated. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic is doing the dirty work for businesses by forcing customers who have been resistant to digital interaction to finally adopt it.
Handling the Volume
Digital engagement is accelerating. In 2018 nearly 2,000 brick-and-mortar bank branches around the country closed as banks found new cost-effective tools to serve customers. But that pales in comparison to what we witnessed this March when practically all bank branches in the country closed to walk-in traffic and 82 percent of customers indicated they were hesitant to go into their local branch because of coronavirus concerns. The trend is the same for retail and healthcare. Stores and malls have already been placed under pressure from e-commerce, and the pandemic is turning the vise even harder on brick-and-mortar retail. Those traditional retailers that survive this economic downturn are starting to plan for the post-pandemic world where shoppers will still be hesitant to enter a physical store. Retailers are adjusting by exploring “virtual shopping” experiences where specialists can give online consultation for style and fit as customers fill up their digital shopping cart. And this pivot isn’t limited to retail; Doctors are currently accepting office visits from only the most urgent cases, with everything else being postponed or pushed to telemedicine experiences.
The WFH Pivot
Consider the experiences of businesses that instantly made the transition from an office-based workforce to a work-from-home (WFH) workforce. Many are now experiencing unexpected benefits in the form of productivity gains and reduced operating expenses. According to research from Gallup, WFH saves companies, on average, $10,000 per year per employee on real estate expenses. And the same research found that their remote staff are some 20 to 25 percent more productive than colleagues in the office.
The WFH trend is not likely to be entirely reversed once the crisis is over. Companies are seeing the value of the model, and the technology investment is occurring now out of necessity. And employees already knew they wanted WFH flexibility. Even way back in 2016, Gallup had reported that 80 percent of employees would prefer working from home at least part of the time, and a third of all respondents would even take a pay cut to have that option.
Customer care is one of the roles that businesses are finding is best suited for the new WFH mandate. Offshoring transformed customer care years ago. Now, we’re seeing businesses virtualizing their contact centers, equipping workers to perform their functions from home. If this crisis had occurred five years ago, the technology and network performance would perhaps not have been able to accommodate this, but cloud-based software and telephony and networking infrastructure are having a fine moment in the spotlight right now. In an era of social distancing, this application of technology is proving its worth time and again.
There are exceptions. We spoke to one client recently who has transitioned their contact center workers to WFH. They told us they needed to disable the call recording solution used for agent quality control and training because it was a bandwidth hog that was affecting overall performance for WFH agents. Providers of contact center technology may need to reevaluate the architecture decisions they’ve made to ensure their solutions are still viable outside of the controlled confines of the corporate contact center.
The genie is out of the bottle. Now that they have experienced it, businesses and employees will likely maintain the WFH dynamic for the foreseeable future.
Re-imagining Trusted Relationships
Like businesses, the pandemic has forced consumers to instantly change their behaviors and comfort zones. Simple excursions that we once took for granted—like walking through the shopping mall, visiting a doctor, or entering a bank—have gone by the wayside. In their place we no longer have a choice but to engage in online shopping, telemedicine, and internet banking.
Security and privacy are important for digitally transformed trusted relationships. When the COVID pandemic shutdown began, financial and medical professionals rushed to replace face-to-face consultations with digital meetings using commonly available online meeting technology. However, online meeting tech quickly came under fire for security and privacy vulnerability. Vulnerable transmissions “include personally identifiable information and deeply intimate conversations,” according to an April 3 article in the Washington Post. Online meeting solutions were not designed to accommodate PCI DSS, HIPAA, GDPR, and other data privacy and security mandates.
A more secure alternative does exist. For example, way back in 2018, Intuit was running Super Bowl ads promoting Turbotax SmartLook™—functionality that enables tax professionals to digitally meet with tax filers to review their return, answer questions, and deliver consultation. The digital meetings are hosted within the Turbotax app, so the functionality is wrapped within the security features already built into the digital engagement. The solution Intuit rolled out was engineered for security and privacy. For example, only screens within the TurboTax app are visible to the tax consultant, so if the taxpayer also has their online banking account open on the computer, that is not visible to the tax consultant. And sensitive information within the tax return, like social security numbers, can be masked from the view of the tax consultant to limit exposure to personally identifiable information (PII).
Financial and medical companies need to play catch-up if they want to successfully digitally transform these trusted relationships in a way that supports their data security and privacy policies.
Digital Self-Service: A Reality Check
Companies are already coming to grips with a flood of customers engaging digitally for the first time, and they are rolling out digital self-service tools to assist customers. Many of the solutions already in the market leverage artificial intelligence to help customers perform basic tasks like make purchases, obtain account balances, or locate store addresses and hours of operation. While these capabilities are no doubt useful for the consumer—and cost-effective for the enterprise—they are also limited in what they can deliver. Customers who have more complicated needs, like opening investment accounts, resolving technical issues, or disputing credit card charges, can become quickly frustrated with bots and self-service. Where problems were once resolved through face-to-face engagement with bankers, retail clerks, doctors, and other valued relationships, the pandemic has eradicated those types of personal interactions. Consumers may well find that digital self-service is not at all an adequate replacement. People get anxious and stressed when they don’t get the answers they need, when they need them. And this is a major issue for businesses, who now need to satisfy every single customer just to ensure their own viability.
Business as we know it has been forever altered. Now that companies of all sizes have been forced to change their practices and workflows, we’re on the precipice of an entire new wave of innovation. Some of this ingenuity is starting to manifest in exciting new concepts centered around the reimagining of trusted relationships. It may seem like dark days at the moment, but the bright light of creativity is already guiding businesses and consumers to create new methodologies and practices that will drive exciting and fulfilling business and personal interactions, both at the workplace and at home.
Tom Martin serves as CEO for Glance Networks. He is a customer experience and contact center strategist, product life cycle expert, and partnership builder. Under his tutelage, Glance has transitioned from a small business screen share tool to a provider of omnichannel visual engagement solutions for some of the largest enterprises in the world. Since that pivot, Glance has experienced multiple years of 70 percent year over year growth. Prior to joining Glance in 2013, Martin spent over a decade at Verizon building and managing strategic partnerships. Outside of the office, he is an avid backcountry skier, mountaineer, and competitive cyclist.