Throughout the coronavirus crisis, a great deal of media attention has focused on the transition to digitally enabled remote working via technologies like collaboration and online meeting software. However, the pandemic has had a much broader impact on commercial use of technology, transforming everything from the way businesses interact with prospects and customers, to the internal processes used to ensure business continuity.
From driving sales to fulfilling orders, COVID-19 has driven a dramatic acceleration of digitalisation. And as we enter the second year of the crisis, it is vital organisations shift from using digital for disaster recovery, to a more considered application of technology that will drive business benefits post-pandemic.
Research about digital acceleration in UK
To help organisations ensure their technology deployments deliver real commercial value, we asked over 500 SME business leaders about their experiences accelerating digital transformation initiatives.
The results suggest a need to focus on planning for the long-term, as well as working with technology partners that can support this forward-thinking approach. (Full methodology is available at the bottom of the article).
Digital customer engagement is up – in the UK and overseas
Across the UK, over half of organisations (56%) have seen a boost in digital engagements from customers and prospects. 21% report a major rise in traffic to websites, while 35% have experienced minor increases.
Furthermore, 84% of businesses seeing an increase in traffic confirm that it has originated in regions or countries where they had not previously operated:
In addition to increased digital customer and prospect engagements, almost two thirds of UK companies (64%) state that the bulk of their business has been conducted virtually since the start of the pandemic:
With the UK entering its third coronavirus lockdown earlier this month, it is clear digital will continue to play a significant role in facilitating business in 2021. Recent research indicates some COVID-19 driven digitisation could be permanent. For example, 76% of UK employees are keen to continue using digital tools to work remotely, either full-time or on a weekly basis, post-pandemic.
In 2020, the crisis meant organisations had to rapidly accelerate their digital transformation just to survive. But now we know much of the way we used to do business may have changed for good, and competitiveness depends on optimising the use of these digital technologies.
Businesses believe they have been successful engaging customers digitally – but challenges remain
For any company, optimising digitisation strategy depends on first understanding over-arching business goals. For most of our respondents, these goals are relatively consistent throughout 2021. Across both the first financial quarter and 2021 as a whole, a significant proportion identified retaining customers, increasing cash flow, cutting costs, finding new customers and retaining employees as their top five business goals for the year:
Many business leaders surveyed believe they have been successful (26% “very successful” and 57% “moderately successful”) at engaging customers in digital environments, including company websites and social media accounts. However, they are also encountering challenges that could impact their ability to achieve business goals in an increasingly digitised economy.
Almost a quarter (23%) of organisations report the process of enabling online checkout and payment is proving a considerable challenge. Similarly, 31% are finding the shift to socially distanced operational processes, such as contactless delivery, considerably challenging.
Beyond these kinds of customer fulfilment issues, some organisations have also found the digitisation of internal processes problematic. Most had experienced moderate or considerable challenges in maintaining team and cross-team collaboration (72%), shifting business processes online (67%), and training employees to use new software (67%).
Perhaps most pressing for businesses trying to optimise their digitisation strategy in 2021 is the need to improve approaches to software acquisition and implementation. Around a quarter of respondents had faced considerable challenges in both areas.
Many COVID-19 driven digital deployments are only designed to provide temporary solutions
Many respondents recognise that internal skills gaps are at least partly responsible for the challenges they have encountered in the shift to digital. Asked about the top digital skills they anticipate needing most in the next six months, cybersecurity, website/app development, social media marketing and project management ranked significantly higher than other areas:
Given the likelihood that hybrid working and digital business models are here to say, one finding from the research was of particular concern. Across a number of areas, a significant number of companies are choosing to deploy new technologies on a temporary basis only.
Asked whether COVID-19 had led them to consider shifting marketing efforts online, Likewise, when it came to expanding the use of digital selling platforms (e.g. Facebook Shops, Etsy, eBay) 28% were also doing so temporarily.
To ensure that digital investments deliver optimum value, it is essential that businesses take a longer-term view when it comes to the solutions they select and how they deploy them. But with over a quarter finding both of these things a significant challenge, choosing the right technology partners is critical.
Looking to the future, business leaders should ensure they work with vendors and service providers that can help them to map out a cohesive digital strategy that will help them to address the challenges they face today and those they might expect to encounter in the future. Further, partners with the ability to support employee upskilling will also help businesses secure maximum value from their technology.
Data for this study was collected in December 2020 from an online survey of 541 respondents that live in the UK.
To participate on the survey, respondents had to be:
- Employed full-time in one of the following roles:
- Owner, founder or other head of an organisation
- C-Suite executive e.g. CEO, CIO
- President of Vice-president
- Working for a company of up to 250 people
- Working at the organisation during the COVID-19 pandemic