What’s The Future Of Business Beyond Covid-19?

June 4

That's the question I addressed in a virtual conference, organised by a group of students at Swinburne University in Melbourne.  

You can either listen to the presentation or read through the transcript.

It doesn’t matter what technological advancements we’ll have in the future, it all boils down to humanity.

What’s been clearly highlighted during lockdown is our dependence on community and social interaction. It’s what makes us human.

It doesn’t matter what age group you talk to, it’s been the physical isolation that’s been the hardest.

From very young children missing their pre-school … to the elderly feeling not only isolated but scared by the risk of catching the virus. And all they want is someone to hug.

We are social beings … think of your happiest moments in life, they always involve other people sharing common goals, interests, and aspirations.

While more and more, we’ve gravitated to technology to speed up our communications with people. We’re now very efficient at exchanging information on the fly.

In our minds, we think we’re still connecting emotionally, and maintaining relationships, by posting on social media, and throwing out emojis.

But the average Facebook user in 2020 apparently has 155 friends …

So do you think they’re all close, trusting relationships?

Or have we traded quality for quantity?

Have we sacrificed richer, more intimate language, with subtle meaning and nuances, For the fast, but blunt instruments of acronyms and emojis?

Big questions, that have suddenly been answered for us by nature, on an epic, global scale.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have given us a sharp, and timely reminder of our primal need for truly meaningful connection … to be part of a caring community.

Where our emotional intelligence, our EQ has had to be quickly dialled-up … to cope with reading vocal tone and body language via Zoom, Facetime, and these types of platforms

There are theories, by the way, about how our brains have been rapidly rewired during this time, to adapt to screen-life - social distancing - dodging people while you’re supposed to be relaxing & walking - long queues at the supermarket - and don’t touch, including our own face and the list goes on and on.

All those tiny details of lockdown life have accumulated in our heads, and won’t be going away in a hurry, even as restrictions are lifted.

Because they’ve been around long enough to be become ingrained as new thought-patterns and habits.

And one of the major reasons for lockdown-fatigue and mental health issues is that our brains hate breaking old habits, they will resist, and use up a lot of energy in the process, because re-thinking everything you do is tiring.

The role of business in our life is no different, business is life - because it’s about meeting people’s needs.

So what’s the future of business?

It’s forming a stronger, emotional connection with your customers - as a community.

So many of us have actually forgotten the art of listening, and having real conversations.

Instead we’ve got lazy, and quite frankly arrogant. We think we know enough and are content to just make assumptions.

But that’s more like being a dictator.

We’ve ditched real conversations for bots, and we’ve become so reliant on big data, thinking that gives us all the answers.

Now data is really important, in fact I’ll share an example shortly of how valuable it can be, so I’m not discrediting it…but it only gives you a picture of the past, it’s never going to predict future behaviour.

Ultimately, it’s customers that control your future, they’re the ones to decide if you’re relevant. Not your marketing team.

They’ll support a business that not only meets their needs, but excites them, makes them feel valued.

The successful business of tomorrow will demonstrate they care. Care about their staff, care about the environment, the community and of course their customers.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, last year 64% of consumers identified as belief-driven buyers. They will choose or avoid a brand, based on its stand on societal issues.

Post pandemic I believe that figure will sky rocket.

This helps explain why so often now, what might start as a small grass-roots movement, will often influence business to adopt community minded practices.

Issue such as the environment, animal rights, gay rights, Me Too, and of course the big one right now, Black Lives Matter.

It seems that all of a sudden people are getting it. They always cared, but now it’s become urgent.

There’ve been shocked, shaken to their core, and that will have a profound impact on everything in their life moving forward.

Before Covid-19 many businesses, although being aware, would say… “yes I’d like to get involved, do more for the environment, make a stand, have a purpose beyond making money”. But it never seemed urgent, so kept going on as business as usual.

They might ‘green-wash’ or ‘woke-wash’ in their branding, which is even worse. They’ll claim to care, but not changing anything below the surface.  But people see through that.

So harsh as it might sound, we actually needed the pandemic to break the cycle, to make us stop and think about what really matters.

Humanising your brand isn’t new … again, it’s talked about, but often just one of those buzz words that sound good in the boardroom, but have no real traction in the real world.

But my future prediction is that those that don’t do it for real, will fall by the way-side.

Smart businesses will start connecting on that human level - those that don’t will stand out for the wrong reasons.

To give you an example ...

If you had to close your business at the beginning of the lockdown, your customers have changed in those 6 weeks or so.

They may seem normal on the surface, but as I said earlier … their minds, all our minds, have been rewired into new ways of thinking – both positively and negatively.

Emotionally, many have been on rollercoaster journeys.

And their needs may have changed,.

Some will have had to pull their horns in financially, some have discovered, and even enjoyed learning to do things differently with what they have on hand.

Research is showing that people are now preferring to work from home because it gives them more time for family, less time commuting, and considerable cost-savings in transport, lunches and so on.

Business owners are certainly busting to just open the doors … assuming, or maybe just hoping their old customers will come back. And many of them will.

But customers will be looking at your business through fresh eyes, and if you haven’t evolved with them, the sad reality is that you’ll get left behind.

Which, by-the-way, also highlights the great risks taken by businesses that didn’t stay in touch with customers during the lockdown – even just to say hi, how are you doing?

Long-lasting impressions of people are often formed in pressure situations – whether it’s people you know – or a business.

Customers will of course be looking to get back to some level of normality. But they’ll become more discerning about who is safe, who can they trust, where do they spend their money?

The only way you’re going to know what’s the right direction, is to talk to customers.

It’s up to you to understand what their evolving needs and wants are ... and not just make assumptions … especially if you’re basing those assumptions on what you thought you knew pre Covid.

That’s the key to future-proofing business.

Not just in this short-term, but long-term when any number of local and global events and normal evolution will fundamentally change your customers’ world.

But there’s a caveat, customers don’t know what they’ll want tomorrow. That’s your job.

And the good news is that a deep understanding of people, and the context of your brand and category in their life, contain the clues to future success. IF you know how to look for them.

People can tell you what they currently think … how they feel … what their frustrations are … and what irritates them about products and services they use in their everyday life?

Do they absolutely love your offering, or do they just put up with you as a ‘near enough is good enough’ solution?

If you disappeared overnight, what would they use instead? That’s a great question to ask them.

Who are your hidden competitors ready to take your customers into the future, beyond just your laundry list of features.

There’s a well-known strategy of Jobs To Be Done… which is basically about finding the real needs behind the purchase…

The common example, is buying a drill … I need a ¼ inch hole … and why do I need a hole … so I can hang an artwork on the wall … and why do I want an artwork … because I want to decorate my house … fulfil a childhood dream … express my taste … impress friends …and so on.

People don’t care about your drill … unless they’re a gadget-geek … they only what the job it does for them, which can actually be an intense emotional motivation. But when your messaging is only about hardware, it’s not engaging with them at a human level.

But you wouldn’t know unless you drill down (pardon the pun) and ask them.

All this might seem a bit abstract when it comes to you running say, a local café.

But it’s the effect these social changes have on our emotions that play a significant role in how you operate and present your business.

Let’s take the café example, to use the information we currently have, and then explore opportunities.

Now that retail data from the lockdown has become more available, there’s no surprise that as we’re spending more time indoors, we’re spending more money on items to make our homes more comfortable.

And that includes a surge in coffee machine sales - those that relied on their caffeine fix on the way to the office needed an alternative.

Now as a café owner your first reaction will naturally be panic - thinking customers will save the $5 or more daily and just make it themselves. Especially if they choose to stay working from home.

But when you look at their primal, emotional needs … like being social for example … you can start to think creatively about the opportunities.

Don’t think inwards and see only lost sales …

Think outwards about how you might take your brand experience to them … and stay relevant in their life.

And its not just about online and home deliveries, that’s boring, and not innovation and future-proofing. That’s now just the entry ticket to even be in the game. There’s no point of difference, when everyone’s doing it, you’re back to where you started, in the pack with the rest.

So here’s an idea, instead of just giving them their morning coffee…make it your café at their place.

And we’ve just hashed out a few other ideas, like ...

Give classes on becoming a rock-star home barista … sell the beans and accessories… form a coffee community that meets after-work, so they have an escape from the home office.

Have competitions for new coffee and pastry recipes … home-cooking has also boomed during lockdown … serve the winners at a Saturday morning event at your café … make them part of the regular menu, named after the winner … that will also stimulate traffic during the week.

What the home coffee machine can’t do is provide a chat…so work with it…you have the venue…bring people together with a common interest.

Now what will happen, rather than them going onto your review site and saying something nice about your coffee once, you’ve created a community, regularly chatting about you, and all the fun things you’re doing.

I bet if you think about it, you could come up with piles of ideas.

The point is, you can’t just assume that what worked for you in the past is going to keep doing it for you in the future.

You have to look deeper and ask your customers for insights into the big questions of … 

where do I fit in someone’s life? … what sort of experience can I offer? …  what kind of relationship do we both want? … how can I evolve to keep the relationship fresh? … how do I offer something different to my competitors? 

If that sounds more like dating advice, even the last bit about competitors … it’s no coincidence. 

And in my experience customers will tell you honestly and directly what they need from you.

Because a business built for the future has a strong foundation of relationships,  not just transactions, and treating people like stats on a KPI spreadsheet. 

It’s connecting with your customer community, having regular conversations about their life, making continuous improvements based on their feedback.

Anyone can copy your catalogue and undercut your pricing for short-term growth.

What they can’t easily disrupt is the relationship built on trust … which has to be earned.


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