As we onboard 2021 and bid farewell to 2020, the challenges thrust upon us over this past year have demonstrated our immense resilience and capacity to adapt quickly in the face of adversity. Digital transformation is a prime area where we have shown our huge capacity to adapt.
According to a study by McKinsey & Company, digital offerings in 2020 have accelerated by 7 years within the space of a few months as companies have surprised themselves with their capacity to pivot their digital initiatives in response to Covid-19. The pandemic has forced companies of sizes, B2B and B2C to leapfrog their transformation efforts. We are now raising questions about how to anticipate the new digital “normal”, what will that look like, how to maintain momentum and how to set companies up for continued success.
As we celebrate all those companies and staff that have been able to adapt their digital offerings to help their customers get through these unprecedented times and to address new market needs, let’s also keep in our thoughts all those domains, companies and staff that have unfortunately been directly negatively impacted by the pandemic, e.g. travel, hospitality, culture, restauration to name but a few.
Let’s view this accelerated digital transformation context from a Darwinian point of view. This is a revised article that I wrote 4 years ago but which resonates more than ever now in the context of the abrupt changes of our current world. The following famous Darwin quote echoes loudly today in our response to the disruption triggered by Covid-19 and our attempt to survive and resume some sort of balanced “business as usual”:
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change (Darwin)
Those of you who have crossed my path will have no doubt been introduced to my mascot chameleon which I affectionately call “Adaptus Rex”. He’s tame and as a prehistoric descendant, he learned to survive environmental change! His capacity to modify the colours of his skin to adapt to different environments has inspired me through all of life’s challenges, continually adapting to the next phase of evolution.
Whilst history has mostly shown us the progressive driving force of technology in transformation, digitalization is creating an immediate impact and disruption, particularly so in response to the pandemic. With each innovative digital offering, there’s a promise of progress that is accompanied by considerable learning curves and adaptation. In some cases, the height of the step to adapt is higher than others, implying considerable change management efforts and learning to take on board new working practices. In other cases, the height of the step to adapt may seemingly be less but as we’re on continual moving sands, it’s difficult to use a yardstick to measure the required effort. Whatever the effort level, we either adapt quickly and survive (thrive for some) or run the risk of being left behind or even becoming extinct! In the words of Brian Solis:
Each business is a victim of digital Darwinism, the evolution of consumer behaviour when society and technology move faster than the ability to exploit it. Digital Darwinism does not discriminate. Every business is threatened.
Prior to the pandemic, our human reaction to the adoption of digitalized offerings has often been rather slow and sometimes hesitant. Staying in a known comfort zone is after all so much more tempting than stepping out into unknown and potentially risky territory like my bold and fearless friend, Adaptus Rex.
Success is on the other side of your comfort zone (Orrin Woodward)
Digital Darwinism has been accelerated with the disruptive impact of Covid-19 as we have been collectively catapulted outside of our comfort zones and plunged right into unknown territory. All of us, suppliers and customers alike have had no choice but to learn fast.
These challenging times have also reinforced companies putting the customer right at the strategic centre, focusing on doing everything possible to help and retain the current customer base. This customer-centric strategy has highlighted the strategic importance of customer success and how it runs through the veins of all the company, where each and every role contributes to helping customers survive, perhaps even thrive. Many companies have reinforced their customer success efforts, put into place special success task forces or crisis committees, bringing sales, support, product and other roles into reinforcing customer success team efforts as well as redefining roles and responsibilities in the “collective customer success team” effort. This company-wide team effort is now playing a vital role by helping customers pivot, step out of their comfort zones to adapt quickly to new and unknown situations where their ever-changing pain points are resolved.
Customer success partners customers to help them blend their invested tools and services into their working environment. This means that customer success professionals need to be experts not only with the tools and services offered by their company but also to know how these tools and services can become “camouflaged” in the customers’ new working habitats. It’s rather like Adaptus Rex’s capacity to adapt his skin colour according to different habitats. With our Covid-19 impacted habitat, our adaptation capacity has been tested to the extreme. It has not been about our hitherto rather gradual adaptation to digital offerings in continuous improvement mode. This time, our adaptation has been triggered out of pure survival. For that, customer success has played such a critical role in helping customers to adapt in record time to new environments and facilitate our collective metamorphosis. The real challenge of this rapid metamorphosis process is not about the technology itself. It’s rather about how the technology, digitalization and its promise fit harmoniously into the new fast-evolving organizations, processes, routines and behaviours. This is where customer success professionals have demonstrated their capacity to anticipate new customer pain points, learn and adapt to these ever-changing environments, transferring their increasing knowledge to help customers gather speed and develop new skills to survive and meet their evolving goals.
To give some Darwinian evolutionary examples in nature, a famous story took place in my native northern England during the last major technological evolution: the industrial revolution. To ensure camouflage as a consequence of the sooty northern manufacturing towns, peppered moths, originally white, became predominantly black via a reproduction process. Another recent example in response to current climatic change is the shift of snail shell colour from dark to light. Snails have developed lighter coloured shells which have a lower body temperature to keep cooler in response to global warming. This phenomenon is noticeable in France where I now live as snails are still a culinary delicacy!
Whilst we humans have not suddenly developed coloured shells and wings (although I believe I can fly) to adapt to this harsh environment thrust upon us, we are being forced to challenge even more than ever before our behaviours, routines, organization, processes, tools and business models. Most companies have now adapted to operating with remote workforces, attending online meetings and events and investing in tools for remote collaboration, onboarding, team building and customer engagement. This last year has forced us into adopting new working habits that we would have not thought possible when we were celebrating the arrival of 2020 just one year ago!
Prior to Covid-19, we were adapting digital offerings in a rather progressive manner where “digital transformation” was being placed as a priority for business strategies. In reality, however, companies were often struggling to adopt digital offerings and make digitalization an inherent part of the company DNA. Unlike the instinct-driven metamorphosis of our friends Adaptus Rex, the peppered moth and the shell-changing snail, our response to change has always been complex. It is perhaps because we human beings are the most intelligent of creatures on earth (we are led to believe) that we have often approached each new business context including digital transformation with too much thought, questioning, emotion, fear, memory and resistance rather than acting on our instinct.
With our Covid-19 impacted environment, however, our adaptation process has been more in line with the instinct-triggered adaptation of our friends from the animal kingdom. Like the peppered moths of my native England, we humans face the challenge of adapting quickly to our accelerated digital environment in order for our business to simply survive. We need to rapidly “camouflage” the new technology and associated behaviour, blending it into our daily habitat so that it becomes the accepted “norm”, at least until the next evolution presents itself. With remote working practices and collaboration for example, we’re still learning about the tools but also acclimatizing associated best practices, code of conduct, new routines and associated soft skills.
Customer success is a role to partner our fellow human beings to acclimatize as quickly as possible to our new surroundings and rise to the new challenges of a world propelled more than ever by technological and digital innovation as a lever to overcome a global crisis: whether that be for example to facilitate remote collaboration, to avoid cash and foster online payment, to facilitate eCommerce transactions, to produce and supply vaccines and monitor their supply chain, distribution and impact, to use 3D printing to produce medical supplies, to use AI to monitor and anticipate important data including the spread and behaviour of Covid-19 around the world and the list goes on.
As we embrace 2021, I’d like to congratulate all the companies, all their customer success staff (customer success teams and all roles of the company) that have adapted and delivered their offerings (digital and non-digital) to help their customers and their own companies to survive and even thrive over the past year. I’d also like to send thoughts to those companies, customers and staff in verticals that have been directly negatively impacted by the pandemic.
“Adaptus Rex” joins me to wish you all the best for 2021 with continued adaptation and evolution to joy, health and success.
I dedicate this article to all the victims of Covid-19 and to families, friends and colleagues who have lost dear ones.