Reopening your doors: What COVID-19 revealed about the need for scalable business operations

Just a few months ago at NRF 2020: Retail’s Big Show, I heard Ajay Banga, CEO and President of Mastercard say that humility must be at the heart of change and innovation. His statement gave me pause. It felt counterintuitive to the traditional view — that significant change or innovation stemmed primarily from intelligence, creativity, and experience — but it resonated with me. The truth is, so many challenges and opportunities arise from unexpected or unfamiliar situations where there isn’t an obvious solution. These types of situations require the humility to say, “I don’t know how to solve this, but let’s figure this out.” It can be scary.

Right now, we are in the midst of a very unique situation. COVID-19 has impacted us on a global scale. We are learning how to work and socialize in different ways. While we still have time before we see how this plays out, the situation has already uncovered many unexpected business challenges that will need to be met with humility-driven innovative responses. I want to focus on one unexpected and vital need uncovered by this situation: scalable business operations.

Redesign business operations to meet customer needs at scale

When business leaders talk about scalability, it’s mainly in the context of business growth. It’s about being able to handle increased demand and grow revenue with a limited impact on operating expenses. However, scalability isn’t just limited to growth. It is also related to the ability to adapt to change — both in the market and in new customer needs. Scalability is also linked to business capability, capacity, and speed to deliver to customers.

There is a significant difference between capability and capacity, one that an organization might not acknowledge until there is a shift in demand or stress on a particular function. Simply put, business capability is what a company can do, whereas business capacity is the level of output a function can sustain.

Right now, we are seeing drastic shifts in the way consumers engage with many businesses, like retailers and restaurants. Companies that don’t have the capability or capacity to handle these changes will struggle. Most retailers can handle online orders, but many are not built to handle remote customer service at scale. While most restaurants can handle traditional in-person experiences, many aren’t set up to receive online or takeout orders. To succeed in our changed environment, organizations must be able to adapt and shift focus to what capabilities drive revenue and scale back on others that no longer do.

Today, CIOs and IT leaders are uniquely positioned to address the challenge of building a future-proof organization with scalable operations. While most leaders couldn’t have imagined or planned for something like COVID-19, many have come to realize that unexpected events are an inevitable, yet powerful catalyst for change. Here are three actions CIOs and IT leaders can take to prepare their businesses for the unexpected:

  • Build an architecture for scalable operations with a customer focus.
  • Create a strategic integration plan with a focus on flexible technology.
  • Develop a culture of scalability and adaptability.

Enable your ecosystem to innovate for customers at scale

As an IT leader, it can be easy to simply focus on reducing IT spend, delivering projects on time and within budget, and ROI of new initiatives, when approaching scalability. However, doing so without an explicit focus on the customer can lead to innovations and optimizations that ultimately deteriorate the customer experience. 

A scalable digital business is built on a customer-centric foundation. Leaders need to do the following when implementing new technologies, launching products, and optimizing processes:

  • Focus on the customer experience throughout the planning, build, and launch phases of an initiative. 
  • Connect data to constantly gain a deeper understanding of the customer.
  • Be responsive to customer needs and feedback.
  • Adapt to changes in the industry.
  • Always have the individual customer in mind.
  • Create a customer-centric work culture.

Organizations should always look for opportunities to improve their products and services. To do so, they should crave and act on customer feedback. They should always focus on meeting customer needs when implementing new technologies to build a more scalable architecture. Businesses can further scale by leveraging APIs and enable their ecosystem with tools and capabilities to innovate for their customers.

Create a strategic integration plan with a focus on flexibility

Our world is more reliant than ever on digital to stay connected. Even as you are stabilizing your business and preparing to re-open doors, you can deepen trust with your customers with regular, transparent communications, co-creation of business continuity plans, and new services or products to help address pains in their new context. Personalization in every interaction is essential to re-establish trust. Without a strategic technology integration plan, new solutions are launched in silos or integrated in a way that leaves the organization little flexibility when customer behavior changes.

The average enterprise has data in nearly 900 different applications, but less than one-third are integrated. The traditional approach to integration and IT delivery simply can’t keep pace. As a result, there’s a gap between the connected experiences being demanded and the disparate systems containing the data that’s needed to deliver those experiences.

When CIOs and IT leaders partner with others across the organization to develop a holistic integration plan with a focus on implementing flexible technologies, they set themselves up to be able to adapt to any type of market or consumer behavior shift. An API-led integration approach can make it possible to connect systems, unify data, and increase organizational agility.

However, a comprehensive integration strategy can only be truly successful when accompanied by a culture of scalability and adaptability.

Rebuild your customer-centric culture with a focus on scalability and adaptability

Having a customer-centric approach to scalability combined with a strategic plan for technology integration is key to succeeding in a dynamic business environment. However, what fuels it all and will continue to carry organizations forward change after change, challenge after challenge, is a customer-centric culture focused on scalability and adaptability. 

There is much written about customer-centric cultures. However, the difference between a customer-centric culture and one with an additional focus on scalability and adaptability is that requires leadership to create the following:

  • Relentless focus on the customer in all areas of the business.
  • Investing in employees by offering meaningful training and continuous learning opportunities.
  • A psychologically safe space for employees to bring up ideas and concerns.
  • Openness to experimentation for increased learning and willingness to try new things.
  • Being data-insights driven to better understand the customer and anticipate their needs.
  • A focus on what customer problem is being solved and not get caught up in how to solve it.

A customer-centric culture focused on scalability and adaptability enables CIOs and IT leaders to make the ongoing changes they need to successfully respond to shifts in consumer behavior and the market.

Conclusion

Unanticipated challenges and unexpected situations can be daunting for IT leadership, but they can be opportunities to lead through crisis, ensure business continuity, and differentiate their businesses. Leaders can be great planners and have incredible foresight, but the unexpected will inevitably come. With the right foundation, strategy, tools, and culture, they can create a future-proof business that will be able to scale up and down in the right areas, and enable them to deliver the type of experiences that will delight their customers.

Check out our COVID-19 hub for resources that can help your business ensure business continuity, unlock new ways of working, and use technology to transform. You can also download this eBook to learn more about how APIs can help unleash the full power of Salesforce Customer 360.



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