Agility, redefined for a world that moves at digital speed

Profile picture for user David Williams By David Williams July 14, 2020
Agility in responding to customer needs has taken on new urgency as offline businesses pivot online, while support teams go fully remote. Zendesk’s David Williams explores what’s changed

Sterilization of colorful cloth face masks for COVID-19 with steam iron © Fevziie - shutterstock
(© Fevziie - shutterstock)

Agility, if you think about it from the market perspective, means you need to adapt to trends and expectations as they change. The prevailing hypothesis is they change more often now than they did in the past. But if I said, "Agility means responding to consumer trends or to how businesses do business." Then you'd respond, "What's changed?" The answer is that two decades ago, all business relationships, transactions, purchases were analog. The world itself was analog. Digital has changed everything.

The digital flood

Communications were the first thing to go digital. First, people had email, and then they had Web browsing and websites, and then gradually, the experiences of buying goods and services were also digital. There came a point when you weren't necessarily buying a physical product online that was getting mailed to you — instead you might be purchasing a subscription to a streaming service. The product itself became digital, not just the experience around its purchase. Things that were digital used to be a very thin layer on top of the world, on top of the things you bought and used, and now it's everything. It's a rising tide, once a trickle, now a flood.

As a business providing goods and services, you need to offer a customer experience that's as digital as possible to meet consumer expectations and to do business at the scale and velocity you want to do.

Etsy: a COVID-19 case study

Let's say you buy a product on Etsy. A small business owner is able to get online and show you their catalog of products. You select what you like and order it. No credit card terminal. And the seller handles all the shipping — with no need for a postage meter. They slap some postage on your box and mail it to you, and you can track your purchase all the way through.

Etsy, a global online marketplace with over 2.8 million sellers and 50 million buyers, was founded in 2015. But Etsy had arguably never faced a challenge like Covid-19. Basically overnight, the US suddenly needed what was at the time an item unfamiliar to many. At the beginning of the pandemic, says Etsy CFO Rachel Glaser, the company saw a steep deceleration in sales, and shortly after that a huge surge in demand for one product — a product that couldn't be found anywhere else… face masks. Glaser calls it the poetry of Etsy's marketplace: "millions of creative entrepreneurs that could meet that demand and millions of customers that couldn't get it elsewhere."

Sellers who were previously processing a couple hundred orders started to get an influx of orders in the thousands. While products usually ship in 24 hours, there were multiple obstacles in getting that supply out in a timely manner, as Glaser recounts:

Our teams had to jump in very, very quickly to help sellers match fulfillment to their capacity and reach out to buyers. All the tools that Zendesk provided helped us to very quickly push messaging to buyers or help the agents in the queue to know exactly how we are going to handle an inquiry.

In order to help sellers meet buyers' expectations, Etsy uses solutions such as analytics from Zendesk Explore to gain visibility into various operations in order to surface, in real time, problem areas such as discrepancies between demand and capacity.

Flipping the switch

What if you were one of those small business owners making masks and you had to print a catalog or send direct mail flyers to people, and they had to fill something out on paper and mail it back to you? That reality is the recent past. The whole process would move at what now feels like Paleolithic speed. Agility today means saying, "Hey, this crisis is happening, right now." If I'm a small business, I go from making one thing to making another thing tomorrow. I flip one switch on my website to let my customers know — and the next day, I could have 10,000 orders.

What if I can't make 10,000? What if instead I could outsource through Upwork or another gig-working site? I could get a bunch of people to make masks for me; I could ship them without ever having touched them. Being agile means you could react to the things that customers want almost instantly and virtually. You don't have to touch every product, and you have to be able to deliver rapidly.

It's more possible to do that today than ever. Particularly given the availability of data and the tools that can put it to use. The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends 2020 report found that high-performing customer service teams using Zendesk manage almost twice as much data on customers, organizations, and customer requests than underperformers. Companies that leverage the most data see 36% faster resolutions and a 79% reduction in customer wait time, while solving four times the customer requests. Good data allows you to move quickly, and with confidence, as Etsy and its community were able to do this spring.

Agility in engagement

Businesses must also adapt to the ways in which customers wish to engage-the way they want to discover your products and consider them and compare them and order them and track them and pay for them. All those things! You have to be able to change that experience seamlessly, the ways customers can contact you and talk to you, the ways they can track their own order and get a refund if necessary.

Ultimately, being agile means adapting to consumer expectations, sometimes very suddenly. "Hey, I need to get a mask, so I'm going to search on Google or I'm going to see what's promoted on Facebook." People are going to click through, check out what's available, and two minutes later they are using a trusted way to pay. In five minutes: viewing order status. In two hours, tracking the shipment. If I need to reach out to you with a question, I can send you a message through Facebook Messenger. Or if I happen to be driving somewhere, I want to be able to talk to you on the phone because I can't message you.

That's certainly what I want as a consumer. To me, agility is all of those things.