Once a company hits a point where online channels drive a significant share of its revenue, it is time to let go of the concept of “normal” customer behavior. For the digital customer, the cost of switching is low, choice is expansive and the subtle restrictions of offline interactions disappear. Expectations change.

Over the course of 2020, most businesses reached their digital tipping point. In what McKinsey has dubbed “the quickening,” the adoption of online services has leapt into the future. In the United States, for example, e-commerce penetration added the equivalent of 10 years’ predicted growth in just the second quarter. In addition, in a survey by Twilio, 97% of U.K. enterprise decision-makers claimed that the pandemic sped up their company’s digital transformation.

While 2021 will hopefully bring a return to a pre-pandemic world in many respects, there is no reversing the digital shift. Learning experts are, therefore, tasked with identifying the skills that their organization needs to match the evolution of their business while maintaining the skills that it needs today.

In a recent global survey by Econsultancy of over 800 executives in marketing, sales and technology, 90% said that their company’s growth depends on rapidly developing skills and capabilities, while 80% percent noted that their strategic plan requires skills and capabilities that are new to the organization. However, over half admitted that their company approaches learning and development (L&D) as the company they are rather than the one they are trying to become.

Findings of that study suggest several guiding principles to help achieve the right balance to position individuals and teams for success:

Teach the Skills of Learning

Boxer Mike Tyson’s famous statement, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” applies to every business that has been confronted by the digital shift. 2020 has taught even the most cutting-edge companies that customer behavior is unpredictable and that customer experience must be nimble to keep up.

The most important skills are the ones that help companies learn and act quickly:

    • Everything begins with the ability to analyze the data produced by the technology stack, from the customer relationship management (CRM) platform to web analytics.
    • Once the data is collected, it is time to act, whether by making an immediate change or by conducting experiments to determine the next steps.
    • The best strategy falls apart when it does not result in good user experience. There is no room for confusion, friction or delay.

Across the Business, Knowledge Is the Competitive Advantage

The rise of customer experience (CX) as the source of revenue growth is not news. Over the last five years, CX’s status as a top priority has expanded from consumer-obsessed companies in retail and digital services to organizations in virtually every sector.

The challenge to many organizations is that customer experience cannot be the sole responsibility of any one group or team. It is a company-effort that requires mutual understanding and education. Companies in a responsive, innovative mode need cross-functional teams to speed experience advances to market.

Learning and development can support this need in two ways:

Build General Business Knowledge

Ninety-six percent of senior leaders told Econsultancy that it is essential that marketers and technologists understand the goals and key metrics of the wider business. However, only 53% believe they have a solid understanding of business goals beyond their specific function. Worse, only one in four knew the answer when asked how their organization calculated several business metrics, including customer lifetime value — a clear opportunity for L&D.

Promote Cross-functional Excellence

L&D should provide training in the best practices of cross-functional team building and management. Research suggests that the failure rate for these teams is as high as 75%, but chances of success skyrocket if systems and clear incentives are in place.

Mindset Makes the Difference

Skills and knowledge give employees the tools to affect change, but mindset enables them to use those tools successfully. Companies that actively work to foster a strong mindset were more than twice as likely to outperform their sectors between March and September of a uniquely challenging 2020, according to Econsultancy’s survey. In fact, 63% of senior executives said that mindset is more important to success than experience or specific expertise.

Of the many aspects of an effective mindset, none is more important than collaboration. In its report “The Global Stakeholder Series: Future of Work, Now,” Salesforce found that 92% of people around the world believe collaboration will be an important skill in the next six months.

Asked to identify the factors that they believed would contribute most powerfully to their future success, respondents to Econsultancy’s survey ranked “the ability to collaborate and enroll others in working toward a common goal” as the most important. While 91% believe that collaboration can be taught, even in the largest organizations, only 41% offer any type of relevant training or support.

Give the Gift of “No”

Learning and development professionals are as pulled in as many directions as the teams and individuals they work to help. Eighty percent of respondents to the Econsultancy survey said that their core skills require updating at least every six months, and that learning does not begin to address the need for new skills and complementary knowledge.

The best training strategies provide employees at every level of the organization with the tools to focus and give them the confidence to know what is important and what must wait. Employees are a business’ most agile and responsive asset, and their time is precious. Knowing when to say “no” helps them optimize this resource.

As 2020 made many strategies obsolete, it also made clear where companies should spend their energies: on knowing what customers need and how their behaviors are changing. Organizations can overcome this challenge with L&D programs that give employees the skills, knowledge and mindset to learn and act quickly.