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COVID-19 – The Common Enemy to Manufacturing Companies?

People Having A Business Meeting

I recently enjoyed hosting a virtual roundtable with a couple dozen senior executives from Global 2000 B2B manufacturing companies.  The topic was, “How Have You Accelerated Your Digital Transformation Strategy as a Result of COVID-19?”

As many know, Digital Transformation has been a hot topic in manufacturing for years. Most manufacturers had it in their ‘near-term’ plan, but COVID-19 has accelerated companies to prioritize it now.  Areas affected and needed to be addressed immediately include; supply chain, ecommerce, data integrity, sales channel conflicts, and customer experience.

COVID-19 also has greatly expedited customer (B2B, B2C, B2B2C) behaviors and expectations. When your consumers find a more effective digital way to interact, they doubt changing back to their ‘old ways’ (pre-COVID).

Forbes’ Senior Contributor Anna-Katrina Shedletsky indicated manufacturing will experience five years of innovation in the next 18 months because of COVID-19.

Is COVID-19 a wake-up call to ignite change in slower adoption companies? Is it a way smaller, more nimble players can expedite how they compete and gain market share? Is it a threat to large companies who depended on ‘offline’ relationship-based business deals via field sales, for example, to stay on top? Or a way to differentiate those that were quick adopters to digital transformation? Spoiler-alert: all of the above.


The Vibe

When I sat down with the roundtable attendees, we were already in the middle of COVID-19.  So it was less about how you are reacting vs. how you are dealing.  The initial punch to the gut reacting period had passed, mostly. We wanted to talk about what areas are impacted now, how are you dealing with it, what lessons have you learned, and how are you positioning yourself to come out of it stronger.

About five minutes into the meat of the discussion, you could quickly feel the vibe in the ‘room.’  It was almost a sense of unity and ‘hey, we’re ALL dealing with this.’  The group was very open to discussing what they are dealing with and offering advice and lessons learned across the board.  This didn’t feel like some roundtables where folks are less likely to speak and only there to listen.  They were asking questions of one another and giving insights.  Again, we are ALL dealing with this, and we ALL need help navigating through it.  Everyone is impacted, globally, and looking to talk about it.

The roundtable was slated for an hour, but that flew by, and folks wanted to keep chatting.  Remember, these were senior executives at multi-billion dollar companies whose time is precious.  After we went extra time, we, unfortunately, had to stop the roundtable with folks wanting to keep the discussions going. They were sharing stories, commiserating, and learning from each other.


The Hot Buttons

As mentioned, this was a very conversational roundtable.  However, some certain key hot buttons and takeaways resonated through the group.  I’ve outlined below some of the key items discussed in no particular order:

  • COVID exposed that driving customers online does not mean the company knows the customer. Offline and online data are not synced, so customers don’t always get the right ‘treatment’ or even discounts they are entitled to and expect.
    • Omnichannel experiences – data sync between internal systems to understand the customer via all touchpoints is vital, and the customer expects it.
  • It’s important to sync the entire ecosystem and supply chain – from manufacturer to dealer/distributor and ultimately end customer.
    • From a data consistency and customer experience point of view
  • Customers are looking for answers and information that directly affect them.
    • Organizations need personalization to direct a message/offer/product directly to an individual.
  • Touchless order processing in a historically salesperson driven world has been a big challenge.
    • Manufacturers are not typically set up to handle orders without human contact or manual processes.
  • Organizations need to get end-customer data to better understand end-customer needs.
    • One positive was selling and servicing more directly to the end customer; manufacturers gained direct insights into customer needs, wants, and complaints. Previously, insights were provided by the dealer/distributor and may have had a ‘filter’ on it.
    • End customer surveys (sound simple) have been surprisingly valuable in getting direct customer feedback and insight. During COVID, responses are way up and very candid.
    • Net Promoter Score was discussed by many as important to monitor during this time
  • B2B does NOT have to mean Boring to Boring
    • The playing field has leveled on digital experience expectations regardless of B2B or B2C
    • COVID has forced the hand to accelerate improving the customer experience
  • eCommerce – most attendees had a semblance of it, but most weren’t ready for the uptick in traffic and demand as a result of COVID. More traffic to a website is good. The inability to handle it is bad.
    • Customer service struggles with online orders, not a scalable model in place.
    • Most companies have a manual ‘behind the scene’ processes to fulfill orders.
    • Many are seeing it as a lead generation facility.
    • Site Search enhancements were a roadmap item accelerated by a few to help quickly navigate the user to information.
  • There is a strong need to drive customers to self-service via the website to deflect calls to the call center.
    • Content and FAQs need to be easily accessible and digestible on the site.
  • B2B portals have played an important role in messaging and are an information ‘beacon.’
    • More focus will be put on these going forward.
  • Marketplaces were a pretty big trend spoken about by a few of the group’s folks.
    • This is a “big shift” as marketplaces help with many facets of exposure, sales, and inventory.


The Bottom Line

As you can see from the list above, there was a flurry of conversation had in the limited time between this senior leader group.  I’m sure if we had another hour, the list above would double in size.  There are several points I’d like to convey after talking with this group:

  • All companies are dealing with this global enemy and are looking for any insights to help combat it.
  • No company was truly ready for a disruption of this magnitude.
  • You need to learn from it and proactively get ready for the next disruption to your business.
    • Yes, there is always a ‘next one.’
  • Those companies who started their Digital Transformation process years ago are coming out much stronger and, in some cases excelling in some areas and taking more market share than before COVID-19.
  • There are no ‘well things will go back to the way they were eventually.’
    • This is a pivot forcing companies to do business in a new way.
  • If you are ‘waiting it out’ then you are standing still and watching your competitors pass you by

I’m not sure there can be a bigger (and more unwelcome) wake-up call than COVID-19 to accelerate your digital transformation plans.  No matter what stage those plans are in. Even if you have gone through a digital transformation phase, there is still a digital evolution to be had.

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Kevin Colletti, Director, Digital Strategy & Innovation

Kevin Colletti is Director of Digital Strategy at Perficient. He has extensive experience working with client senior management teams to develop innovative digital strategies driven by measurable results. Creating simplified digital solutions out of complex client problems is where he thrives the most.

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