As the head of global customer operations in a major technology company, the vast majority of my 3,400-person team typically spend their days in the field, working on-site with plenty of client face time. Or they did until March 2020, at which point we, like so many other organizations, had to go virtual, quickly.
The environment in those first few months was as fluid and dynamic as anything I can recall in more than two decades at OpenText. Our customers were hustling to digitize processes and information and move to remote work, and most of my team was going through the same transition as we shifted to remote work. To help keep my front-line support teams safe, OpenText quickly adopted new protocols around PPE, sanitization, and physical distancing, and rolled out an employee self-declaration app.
Customers were looking to us for solutions, but we were also listening to and learning from them as they navigated that epic shift last March. Here are some of my key learnings from the past year.
INCREASED COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION
As a digital-first company, it didn’t take long for the OpenText IT teams to sort out the technical aspects of remote work—robust security protocols and safe ways for remotely connecting to customers’ systems have always been priorities for us. But the transition pushed us to increase collaboration and communication with our customers.
The importance of honest, two-way communication with customers cannot be stressed enough. The move to virtual has meant a lot more time spent on Zoom or Teams, but we’re highly conscious of the quality of this communication, both inside our division and with our customers.
In addition to keeping our employees apprised of our new health and safety measures, we have implemented regular communication protocols, including meetings with my leadership team to debrief on customer issues and ensure our staff have the information they need to better support our customers. This, in turn, has enabled us to be proactive in supporting our customers and provide clear, open, and timely communication—and pivot as needed – as we collaborate on their digitization efforts.
One significant result of the expanded collaboration with customers is that many are turning to us to deliver more managed services and cloud deployments as they work through their own digitization strategies. These decisions allow customers to build in some redundancy in case of staff absentness, but it also gives them the space to focus on their own businesses, rather than worrying about the technology.
FLEXIBILITY AND ADAPTABILITY
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is that customers are willing to be flexible and adapt to new models. The pandemic could have resulted in companies wanting to retrench to what they know well and what they are comfortable with. But I’m seeing the opposite, with organizations looking not only to survive, but also to thrive by embracing agility and change. They’re willing to look at new ways of doing things, driving more digitization and providing even greater remote access to information for their employees and partners; and we’re helping them to collaborate, share, store and keep information digitally and securely.
For example, we had a large customer whose employees had trouble getting access to their content as they transitioned to the remote work environment. We dropped everything to trouble-shoot them through an organization-wide access and security crisis. Although the customer traditionally kept their information behind the firewall, we were able to quickly and securely extend their capabilities, enabling employee access to the information they needed beyond the firewall while working remotely. This is a prime example of the flexibility and agility needed to react to global events and support business continuity.
As we expanded our customer base and the level of engagement with individual clients, we have had to do a lot of hiring in the past year. The process is entirely virtual, and we have had to pay particular attention to those elements of the recruitment and on-boarding process that typically take place in person, such as interviews and training.
But we’ve also been very conscious of the “softer” aspects of work, such as virtual coffee hours, virtual team breakfasts, global social events. It’s about building those connections, because when you are part of a company—whether you joined last week or last century—you want to feel that you’re connected.
We pay a lot of attention to ensuring that our people feel supported as they do their jobs from home. This is as true for my front-line support teams as it is for my senior management team. It is one thing to manage in an office building with a thousand people who you encounter all day long, and quite another to connect, manage, and lead remotely.
BEING DIGITAL WILL BE THE NORM, NOT THE EXCEPTION
So, what have I learned over the past year? When supporting customers through a global pandemic, two-way communication and collaboration is vital. You need to truly understand the challenges your customers are facing, adapt quickly, and orientate your business to support them—which means doubling down on your base must be a priority.
Reflecting on what we’ve learned about managing in a period of both crisis and transformation, it’s also important to look at the next chapter. What happens when most people have the vaccine and life begins to return to normal? We will get back to some on-premises customer planning meetings and engaging them in discussions about their future strategies. But we’ll be more selective and more digital, and so will they.
James McGourlay is the EVP of Customer Operations at OpenText. Connect with James on LinkedIn.