COVID-19 has upended all the usual ways we conduct business, and the changes aren’t going to go away with the virus. We have the opportunity to use this crisis to be creative and imaginative about rethinking how we work, and to embrace and strengthen our human connections with one another.
In his 2016 book, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Klaus Schwab, an economist, and the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, writes that “we are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another…”
At the time he wrote the book, he could not possibly have anticipated that the arrival of a global pandemic would accelerate that revolution to warp speed. As John Lennon sang in Beautiful Boy, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”
The changes in how we work as we adapt to social distancing are not going to be temporary. Our “new normal” will be fundamentally different after the virus has receded into the shadows. The segment of the population best positioned to adapt to this overnight sea change (because, for them, it’s not a brave new world) are so-called digital natives, those Millennials and members of Gen-Z for whom living, working, and thinking with a digital-first mindset is how life has always been, in contrast to those of us digital immigrants who’ve learned to work in an increasingly digital world in much the same way that one learns to speak a foreign language…you can get really fluent, but you always retain the trace of an accent from your native language.
As we move into new territory, the digital natives can help show us the way. There is much we can learn from them, and we need to do that now, and quickly.
Remote work, distance learning, virtual events, electronic everything
We’re all feeling the impacts of social distancing on our work lives. Home has become our only workplace (those of us, anyway, who are fortunate enough to still have jobs to “go to”). And many of us are finding that it’s not as easy an adjustment as we might have thought. “This will be great! I already work from home a few days a month, and honestly, it’s relaxing not to be constantly interrupted…I’m so much more productive!”
Shifting from a mindset where working remotely is a welcome change from the daily routine of going to the office, to figuring out how to draw boundaries between work and home life when it all happens at the same time within the same four walls takes intentionality and thoughtful planning. The natural breaks that used to happen in my day – grabbing a cup of coffee from the machine down the hall, having lunch in the cafeteria with some coworkers, or dropping by a colleague’s office to chat about something or shoot the breeze – no longer happen organically. Now, I need to be thoughtful about making time for self-care in my day, like setting a time to remind me to eat lunch or working out as the delineation between my work and personal time.
Many of us have had home office setups for a long time, but, for me, anyway, my home office was never a one-for-one replacement for my work office. Being in it for 9+ hours a day, I’ve had to think about what I need (and don’t need) to be comfortable and productive. For those of us who haven’t worked primarily or only from home before now, it’s been even more challenging!
The personal considerations that I’ve had to make are not all that qualitatively different from the adaptations that businesses are needing to make to adjust.
How do I market to my customers when the (fill in a number here) in-person conferences and events that I plan for and spend millions of dollars on each year can’t happen in person anymore? What does it mean to take a customer or prospect to lunch when I can’t take them to lunch anymore? Or out for a drink after work? Or invite them to my executive briefing center to give them a focused day with multiple speakers talking about our products or services and how those things meet the business needs of my customer? How do I do a worldwide annual sales meeting when I can’t fly thousands of employees to one location, house them in hotel rooms for a week, feed them, entertain them, and educate them about new products, new initiatives, and new campaigns for the coming year? What’s the impact on my people who aren’t able to come and connect in the professional settings we’ve provided for them in the past?
The answer is both simple and mind-numbingly complex. Do it virtually and digitally. A lot of the technology that will make that possible already exists and has for some time. Video conferencing, distance learning, online content delivery – these are not new concepts or new tools, but as business shifts to doing more virtually, we are quickly pushing the tools to their limits. In fact, in the few short weeks that work has become remote, we’ve already crashed into some of those limits, and to their credit, the providers of those tools have worked feverishly to extend them, and add capabilities that may have been on the drawing board for some time, but can no longer wait until the next version, next month or next year.
We also need to rethink how we use those tools. Is the way that we build content, and the purpose for which we build it, still relevant, or do we now need to consider that the delivery of that content and the audience for it are different (qualitatively) than before? How is the way we build a slide deck for delivery in person at an industry event different from the way we build it to deliver virtually? Is it just that now we’re pointing a camera at the speaker and their slides, or are there other, more subtle considerations? How is the event itself different when my audience is on the other end of a video conference rather than sitting in rows of chairs in front of me?
Other tools that digital immigrants have only been slowly adopting, if at all, will now play a central role in reaching customers and prospects. Social media tools – like Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, (and yes, even Facebook) – are pathways to reaching our customers that we may have thought of as, at most, additive to the normal ways we reach customers a few years ago. They will now be among the primary ways that we do! If your business didn’t have a well-developed social media strategy before January, 2020, you are most likely scrambling to come up with one now. (HINT: Reach out to your Millennial and Gen-Z employees to guide you…they already know how…)
But don’t for a moment think that if we put the right tools and strategies in place to enable changes in the mechanics of how we sell, market, and service, we’ll have nailed it. We also will need to (maybe for the first time) think super hard about the social aspects of how we do business.
Humans are social animals
My wife and her colleagues conduct a regular four-month long onboarding program for new employees in the largest division of a large technology company here in the Puget Sound region. Before COVID, the program would begin with a kickoff for each cohort, with as many as a two hundred people in each kickoff, followed by sessions once every three weeks with smaller groups of 12-15 people, all done in person. With everyone now working remotely, the program has shifted completely to virtual, online delivery. A couple things immediately became apparent. Although doing a big kickoff to start the program was valuable from a social connection perspective, it was no longer practical. More importantly, they have had to restructure the content to better fit virtual delivery and facilitation. But the most interesting thing, in my judgment, is that they have found that there is a great desire (and it is enormously valuable to the participants) to spend a big chunk of the first session with each new cohort checking in – how are you doing, what challenges are you finding with working remotely, what kinds of things are you doing to take care of yourselves? An outsized number of these new employees are PMs, engineers and data scientists, people who are generally very focused and highly introverted. More than before, they’re finding that they need to be deliberate and intentional in how they structure their days, including blocking time for social interaction online.
I’ve sold, marketed, or supported technology products for most of my career. One thing I learned early on was that people don’t buy from companies, they buy from people. All other things being equal (my product does pretty much the same thing as my competitor’s product, pretty much equally well, for pretty much similar cost), at the end of the day, if I have a better personal relationship with my customer than my competitor does, I’m going to get the sale more often than not. Many years ago when I was in customer support, I found that I could lower the temperature of even the hottest customer by relating to them as a person, empathizing with the situation they were dealing with, and partnering with them to solve their problem, much like I would partner with a friend to resolve some personal issue between us.
We teach salespeople to actively listen to their customers. Sales methodologies like Solution Selling teach them to probe for latent customer pain, and position whatever it is they’re selling as a set of capabilities that the customer can use to ameliorate that pain. Yes, we’re talking about products and services and business, but we frame those conversations in real, emotional, personal terms, because everyone intuitively understands pain and its alleviation, and how it feels to be in pain, and then not. Good salespeople learn how to read physical and verbal cues and judge what’s going on for their customer in the moment by observing their body language.
When I’m sitting across from my customer in a conference room, I can easily focus on what she’s telling me, what visual and body language cues she’s giving me. Sitting in my home office with my customer as a video image on a screen is an entirely different experience. It’s harder to focus when my kids are in the other room making noise, or I’m momentarily distracted as a neighbor walks their dog outside my window. I can’t see subtle shifts in body language that help me gauge how my message is landing on my customer, or how she’s reacting to my sales pitch. All the things that I used to use to help guide me in my customer interactions are not only still important in a virtual world, they’re harder to observe, and even more important than ever before.
In addition to being mindful of the “new normal” in business interactions, it’s now more important than ever to embrace our personal connections with the people at the other end of the video. All the things that have become innate behavior over many years aren’t as easily realized in a digital environment. We need to ask questions differently, and ask different questions. We have to be more attentive to the dynamics of our interactions, because they may not be as evident as they are in person. We’re learning how to do business in the midst of a pandemic, but when the crisis is over, one lesson that I hope sticks is the importance of doing things that strengthen our bonds and our connections with one another as just another part of “business as usual.” “How are you holding up?” “Boy, I can really empathize with figuring out how to keep my school-age children occupied while I’m trying to do my job!” “Are you finding ways to get outside and exercise?” “What are you doing to unplug and relax these days?” It feels natural to have these kinds of personally connected conversations now, while we’re all struggling with the same restrictions on our daily lives, and we don’t need to be going through a period of shared suffering to do them.
Mark Schaefer, in his book "Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins" talks about the importance of having emotional connection with our customers to create a bond between us that inspires loyalty (to our product, our company, our brand, to ourselves). When I first read the book, I thought, “what an interesting idea…how can I put that idea to use?” like it was just another tool in my toolkit. What this period of time has made me realize is that personal connection with my customers is honestly no different than personal connection with my friends and family. It’s important because it’s important. It’s important because “customer” is just a role in one particular context. It’s important because my customers are people, just like me, with the same kinds of worries and stresses and motivations. Whatever accrues to my business relationships because of my willingness to create a personal connection, while that is a primary goal of business relationships, deeper emotional connection is the frosting on the cake.
Moving from adaptive and reactive to intentional and strategic
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us (and tested our abilities) to adapt quickly to an environment we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t plan for. Understanding both the necessity and the opportunity to rethink how we do business means that it’s time to think strategically about sales, marketing, customer service, customer relationships – indeed, every aspect of how we do business. How do we connect to customers and prospects? How do we inspire loyalty? How do we build and strengthen bonds with our customers when we can’t be with them in person, when we can’t have lunch with them, can’t bring them to a conference to feel and touch our products, when we can’t reach across a table and shake their hands?
These are the kinds of things we’re thinking about at The Spur Group. We don’t have all the answers yet, and neither do you. It’s going to take curiosity, creativity, a lot of experimentation, trial and error, and what Simon Sinek calls “an infinite mindset.” We can choose to feel burdened by what might seem like an overwhelming task. Or we can embrace the opportunity to rethink everything and be open to the possibilities that show up that we may not have ever considered before.
At The Spur Group, we are excited and committed to partnering with our clients to travel this path together and create the answers. Success is a journey, not a destination. Let’s enjoy the ride together!