Over recent years, companies across Europe have seen IT budgets squeezed, teams cut and resources stretched. This has meant that for many businesses, the focus has been on simply making sure existing customers are happy, less on attracting new ones.
Things are beginning to change. The headlines are changing from doom and gloom to cautious optimism as economies stabilise and consumers once again begin to loosen their purse strings. Now companies are looking at once again at broadening their market reach, and investing in systems to address new customers after years of neglect.
So what steps can be taken to rapidly take advantage of growing markets? In particular, what systems do companies need to think about, and what is technology's role in supporting these first signs of growth?
Luckily, the team over at Outbox Group are here to help with this handy three-part series.
Finally, we'll look at how companies' mobile strategy and training systems will change as we move out of the recession.
Mobile – Moving from 'one size fits all' to 'custom fit'
Mobile strategy has become a key concern for IT departments, providing another way for organisations to communicate with consumers and employees alike. As budgets start to grow, there are several aspects of mobile for companies to consider – "Do our apps function properly across all the necessary devices? How does our website look on mobile? Do we go with native or web apps?"
The all-too-common unfocused approach
For many companies the approach to mobile so far has been unfocused. Some have opted for cheaper, cross-platform Web apps, while others have invested in native apps for a few key devices and operating systems. Whichever approach is chosen, mobile apps are often created outside of the core IT strategy, as employees from non-IT teams, like marketing, look for a cheap and fast way to collect valuable customer data and gain access to the mobile market.
The resulting portfolio often leaves IT teams to mop up the mess when customers complain mobile apps do not function correctly, are off-brand and do not link into backend CRM systems. With little available money or resources to develop, test and review apps on every single handset on the market, this can become a business-critical issue.
Now, to add to the pressure, as more budget becomes available, companies are hoping mobile can prevent some of the erosion from other revenue streams, IT is once again being given the reins to properly manage and oversee the entire mobile strategy.
There are still the same choices to be made. Do we go for native or web apps? How much budget do we allow for mobile app testing? Where can we compromise on functionality? How important is appearance? The answer to all these has a huge impact on budget and end results – many IT teams we have worked with fail to realise the man hours required to create a perfectly functioning, native app compatible with every device.
This is perhaps because until recently it was 'not their problem'.
Multiple native apps
Many underestimate the cost of creating multiple native apps, believing developers are able to copy and paste large sections of code and make a few small changes for each device. However this is far from the truth, for each device and operating system combination large sections of the app will need to be built from the bottom-up and tested repeatedly.
Even as we move out of recession, companies will still need to compromise on levels of functionality or aesthetic to avoid costs spiralling out of control as the device for mobile increases relentlessly. Be specific about which devices you need to support, which functionality is vital and be prepared to compromise on other things.
Mobile offers a fantastic opportunity to interact further with customers, potential leads and industry experts and should be managed by a core IT team. But it is nothing more, or less, than a whole new set of platforms. What worked in the world of recession cannot just be scaled up in good times. External expertise, like ours, may be quicker and more cost effective for your business.
Smart training for smart outcomes
In recession, many activities take priority over innovation. Selling, Accounts Receivable and, in the worst cases, Human Resources can all seem more important than diverting scarce funds into developing new routes to market, creating killer marketing plans or developing staff by reskilling them. This is understandable, but may be a false economy when business picks up and rivals are in better shape to take advantage of the eventual upturn.
Technology is changing training
Deploying the latest Social Collaboration technology can help employee productivity turn employees and their social networks into potential brand advocates. Investing in new systems like this though will not yield business value without the correct training plans.
These days, thanks to technology, this need not be formal classroom training, does not have to involve lengthy courses and need not even be done during core work hours. A great method of skills transfer for many introducing new cloud-based systems is to 'Learn by Doing'.
Training is often the crucial difference between software helping a business run smoothly and wasting hard-earned IT profits on failed projects which deliver value to the business late, or even not at all. It is puzzling as to why so little pre-planning and budget is allocated to IT training, given its crucial role in the success of any system implementation. Especially one as far-reaching as Customer Relationship Management roll-outs, which involve training a large and diverse set of users.
The growing copmplexity of CRM systems
Although commonplace, CRM Systems are increasingly complex beasts with easily as much potential functionality as most IT operations applications. Due to their ease of installation many enterprises assume the latest tranche of cloud-based applications are also easier to use.
However, although CRM apps are typically cloud-based these days, their interfaces pre-date tablet computers and often have more in common with terminal-based ERP systems. This can be daunting for many users, increasing the need for end-user training and making this training mission-critical for CRM success.
Good training not only increases use adoption rates, it also reduces costs in terms of support calls. There are however many different learning styles recognised now by academics, from rote learning (literally remembering the order of symbols), to 'Learning by Doing'. Finding the right style for different job roles and individuals is often best achieved by external experts.
Agile is everything
With the speed at which businesses evolve, it takes a very flexible platform to meet all an organisation's current and future needs in one. One consequence of such broad functionality is that scheduling training for an entire workforce can be impossible.
Luckily the advent of computer based self-paced learning means tailored courses can be developed as and when needed, rather than all at once. Even with such aids expert advice, from independent IT professionals which can be called up at short notice is an attractive and cost-effective option for most mid-size organisations.
The wisdom of crowds
Renowned US financial writer James Surowiecki's book, "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few...", argues humans in larger teams make better choices. Similar claims are being made for Big Data, the technology which lets enterprises analyse unprecedented amounts of raw customer data. More it seems is better when it comes to making decisions. But in modern organisations this only applies if your IT systems are up to the job.
The new possibilities of cloud
For many years, European IT budgets have remained flat or declining, resulting in a lack of investment in key customer-facing technologies at the very time when new approaches to "customer wisdom" have rapidly evolved. Learning fast and adapting offerings to ever-shifting customer needs is certainly much easier with newer cloud-based solutions such as Salesforce.com, Microsoft Dynamics and the latest Oracle offerings.
However, many of the skills required to exploit these innovative systems for Customer Engagement and Customer Relationship Management (CEM and CRM) systems are also relatively new. This means many of the personnel with the latest skills needed to thrive as Europe's economies turnaround may not be found in-house.
The strength of crowd-sourcing
Crowd-sourcing is a hot topic these days for both IT and Marketing. Product Managers and Marketing Executives are using "the wisdom of crowds" to make products and services more attractive, to source finance and skills, saving the time and effort of existing employees. These opportunities have spawned new technologies such as collaboration platforms, crowd-based customer service and even crowd-based first level support (where customers help each other to get value from a shared provider).
Now, as economies recover, leaders are embracing risk and starting to see their customers as a valuable resource. Customer input is genuinely shaping a variety of core business processes and defining the services and products they see as valuable.
Crowd-sourcing the skills gap
So could such crowd-based approaches for collecting ideas on new products and services, also provide an answer for the skills gap in IT? Well, maybe. The issue is speed to market.
While first-generation CRM and CEM systems are often subject to great management scrutiny and delivered with much fanfare, it is often hard to keep everyone focused for the next revision. However customer expectations are constantly rising, thanks to the explosion in social and mobile interactions.
Designing successful IT systems during recession has meant many organisations did not take the risk to invest for the future in newer technologies which could tap the "wisdom of their customers". These new CRM/CEM technologies are maturing at different rates. Effectively combining them requires a vast range of skills out of the reach of most non-IT organisations.
Lowering operational costs and standing by employees and systems during the tough times is often admirable. Taking the same approach now could mean losing competitive advantage. It cannot be wise to let others win over your longstanding customers, simply because of a decision not to use outside help. That would be the exact opposite of the 'Wisdom of crowds'.
Outbox Group is a consultancy delivering IT solutions to boost customer experience through personalisation, social relationships empowerment and CRM.
Image: Flickr (reynermedia; Victor1558)