13 Moves Non-Digital Companies Can Make in a Downturn

When Denny’s, a 24/7 diner, pivots to curbside delivery, but also offers the ability to order groceries and pick them up at a drive-through window, you know things have changed quicker than anyone could have ever imagined.

We will remember COVID-19 as the event that inspired many companies who are only tinkering with digital, to go all-in on digitizing their entire operation.

This quote from Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, during their Q3 2020 earning report, is all you need to know about what’s happening right now.

“We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. From remote teamwork and learning, to sales and customer service, to critical cloud infrastructure and security.”

I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many C-suite executives and founders of companies, and while some are still trying to stay alive and keep the lights on, there are many who are using this as an opportunity to become digital-first organizations.

For those still pondering the impact of COVID-19 on the next 12–18 months, I compiled a list of activities to help you get through the downturn.

1. Accept that best practices in this new world won’t help you win.

The “best practices” playbooks assume one thing: Everything is the same. It assumes that your customers buy and interact with products the same way they used to. We’ve been forced to adopt a “digital-only” life, and most playbooks are not equipped for this.

It’s time to re-think everything about how you create and sell your products and services. Re-think your partners, manufacturers, marketing, and distribution. Nothing is too sacred to be reconsidered. Because if you don’t, someone else will, and in the end, customers determine who they want to be in business with.

Replace best practices with next practices.

2. Plan for chaos and invest in agility.

As I’m writing this article, some parts of the world have non-essential businesses reopening, and some are doubling down on locking down. There is no right answer. This environment causes unpredictable things to happen, and consumers start changing behaviors seemingly overnight.

I would plan on the situation not staying the same for more than 6–9 months at a time. And for non-digital organizations, customers that don’t have predictable buying behavior could be the end of them if they aren’t ready to adapt to the new way of selling products.

We are going to see new products, new services, and customers relying on digital solutions. I would plan for chaos and uncertainty and invest in agility. Investing in agility could mean changing the organizational structure to move quicker, investing in more digital-first solutions, and investing in projects that help them move faster.

No enterprise organization wants to pivot as a startup would, but I honestly believe that organizations don’t have a choice.

Tweet: Speed is a competitive advantage, even if it means experiencing failure.

3. Invest in experimentation, not perfection. Test five new ideas every quarter.

Nike did something interesting when they launched a sneaker subscription service for busy parents. Easy Kicks was launched under a different brand with no affiliation to the Nike brand. They launched it under a different brand to test if people would sign up for the service without the Nike brand behind it. They got up to 10,000 subscribing members before rebranding as an official Nike service.

The test was a success. If the test wasn’t a success, it would have been shut down with no damage to the brand since there was no public affiliation to the brand. It’s a win-win for everyone. Nike gets to see if a new service works without the Nike brand behind it. It was always thought of as an “experiment'' internally and not a big company-wide bet, which changes expectations significantly. Now Nike gets to launch a brand they know has a high chance of succeeding. A smart move from start to finish.

Start testing.

4. Focus on the customer, not the competition. Build painkillers.

The biggest challenge you have is winning over your customers, not killing your competition. It’s not about what you think the customer wants. It’s about what you know the customer needs. And the best way to understand what your customers need is through experimentation, testing, and learning.

The customer is what matters. The competition is there for motivation only.

5. Restructure marketing teams and efforts to only critical functions and highest-performing activities.

Marketing budgets are being slashed by everyone, and I understand that. But, every marketing lead and executive team should be looking at what activities drive the highest ROI. Brand awareness and nice-to-have marketing campaigns should probably be on hold.

Tweet: Focus on your north star growth metrics, and be relentless about pursuing them.

6. Build direct transactional relationships with customers.

Expedia went from normally spending $5B in advertising to planning on spending less than $1B in 2020, with the coronavirus being the leading driver of this change.

This, of course, is a no-brainer decision due to the pandemic and lack of travel, but take a look at this excerpt from a CNBC article about their advertising cut move.

Expedia is one of Google’s biggest advertisers and Expedia is trying to move away from its “reliance on Google and Metasearch” to grow more direct relationships with its customers. [src]

Building direct relationships with customers is something we’ll hear more about from companies around the world. This is a necessity.

Customers pay bills. Be obsessed about them.

7. Test new channels to reach your target markets.

Diversify your channels. Any company with a single channel to reach their target market puts itself at risk if something happens to that channel. And as you’ve seen with the pandemic, sometimes the unthinkable could happen.

Diversify your channels, and start testing new channels that can drive revenue growth. I recommend having at least 2–3 channels being tested at any time. As soon as you identify a fast-growing channel, then you can double or triple down on it.

Start with an educated guess, and give your experiments a chance to win.

8. Identify new behavior changes and align with new digital opportunities.

I see a lot of merit in Jeff Bezos’ quote, “focus on the things that aren’t going to change,” even during the middle of a pandemic. Do you know what’s not going to change for a long time: The digitization and automation of everything. The entire tech community has been harping on this for at least the last ten years, but now it’s more important than ever.

Turn your organization into a digital-first organization, or someone else will. Or worse off, your customers will turn away from you.

Digital-first, always.

9. Digitize and automate processes.

The pandemic has proven that digital-first businesses were able to maximize their revenue quickly without panic. I’m pretty sure this headline and article drive my point home: “Chipotle earnings top estimates as diners shifted orders online, driving its digital sales up 81%.”

Anything that can be automated, should be automated and anything that can be digitized, should be digitized.

10. Commit to building high-performance-based teams and culture.

Every fast-moving organization has one core philosophy, whether they recognize it or not. And that core is: Moving fast is experimentation, not perfection. Instead of getting it right the first time, it’s putting it out there and improving on it.

Tesla is a great example of a high-performing team that continues to push new updates. The car is now updatable, which was unthinkable years ago.

Speed is the name of the game to survive when everything else is chaotic and unpredictable. Those who can move quickly will win. And the way to do that is to plan for it by testing and experimenting with bringing new products and services to the market.

Speed is a survival technique.

11. Remove the middleman at any cost. Direct-to-customer is the way to go, regardless of your business model.

One of the fastest, proven paths to business growth is to collect, analyze, and take action on data. However, If you don’t own your customer relationship and their data, you’re at the will of whoever does.

For example, many manufacturing and logistics companies go through channel partners who control who buys their products, at what price, and run the entire customer experience from start to finish. That use case is slowly starting to disappear as companies recognize that they need to own the customer experience. Toys “R” Us exclusively selling their toys on Amazon is a great example of how not owning the customer comes at a big cost.

Know your competitors, but know your customers even more.

12. Plan for the crisis to never end.

This is another way of saying to plan for the new normal. Any plans that are interim steps until the pandemic is over are just that: interim. The new normal has already been here for years. Now it’s just accelerated.

The crisis changed the way we live, and now it’s time to change the way we work.

13. Commit to a high-performance growth culture.

  • Don’t have marketing KPIs? Now is the time to create them and track them daily or weekly.
  • Don’t have a team that moves quickly and understands digital at its core? You know what you need to do.
  • Does your organization resist change or embrace it?

Tweet: You need the right people, doing the right things, and being measured on the right metrics. That’s when high-performance happens.

The pandemic is an opportunity to distinguish yourself from the rest.

If you’ve hated the phrase “digital transformation” because it’s an overused term, you’re in for a bad time. Going digital has gone from an interesting thing to talk about, to “if you don’t do this, you’re going to die.”

Having seen the first-hand impact of companies who invest in digital outperforming their peers and thriving through this pandemic, it’s hard for me not to follow the chorus with everyone else.

Changing the way we do business with our customers is not a nice-to-have. It’s the foundation of surviving.

Go digital or go home.