While 2020 technology spend focused heavily on making sure enterprises could function in new, remote ways, 2021 is about looking outside of the company, and focusing on customers.
This year, the customer comes first, a West Monroe survey of 150 business leaders found.
When it comes to this year's technology spend, 37% of business leaders plan to spend most on front-end customer experience/e-commerce, according to the January report. Data, including warehousing and analytics, made up 19% of budgets.
Rahul Singh, senior director of IT strategy and business process outsourcing at West Monroe, wasn't surprised, that customer-facing technology was the top choice by a wide margin.
"People were not able to get out," he said. Enterprises were forced to move online because they had to find "ways to interest your consumer when they couldn't engage them in other means. They had to service them or they couldn't survive."
Facing customers during a pandemic
The relationship between customers and enterprises changed the way everything is done, from going to the doctor or to the bank. For those who lost their jobs, or whose businesses faced threat of closure, applying for things like unemployment insurance and business loans became essential.
"Customers reached out to customer service organizations to help them navigate the impact of the pandemic. They became a lifeline," said Kate Leggett, vice president and principal analyst serving application development and delivery professionals at Forrester.
At the same time, enterprises worried about losing business "switched from going out and finding new customers to shifting their efforts on retaining and doing the right thing for their existing customers, to be able to make sure they stayed and perhaps grow their business," Leggett said. Those companies invested in things like chatbots, SMS messaging, new or upgraded applications and even more live agents to interact with people over digital channels.
These plans had already been in the pipeline for many organizations, but the pandemic pushed them forward, and pushed them forward faster.
"It became all self-service, digital, contactless engagement," she said. "Many companies didn't have those modalities deployed so they had to make investments."
Not everyone is ready
Not every enterprise is ready to continue or even start to work with customers in state-of-the-art ways. Verint, a customer engagement platform, surveyed more than 2,000 global business leaders across 12 countries and found that only 50% were prepared to support customer engagement priorities, and that 82% saw the challenges of managing customer engagement are increasing.
A big reason for this is the pace of change, said Celia Fleischaker, CMO of Verint. Even for enterprises who had already planned to make a more digital shift, pushing those plans forward wasn't as simple as uploading a file.
The sheer number of avenues that required transformation could be overwhelming. The amount of channels and interactions grew "exponentially at the same time you have changes in the workforce dynamic," she said. Completely changing the way an enterprise works with customers at the same time supporting a newly remote workforce was a double whammy.
Having the right people in place has been a complication too, she said, especially for those who were just trying to keep the lights on last year.
Three-quarters of respondents put off hiring in 2020. And that while many are planning to hire people back, "you can't really hire your way out of the issues that have been created," Fleischaker said. "The resource line stayed flat at best in most organizations, and is in some cases, going down. This is a widening gap that they're having to navigate," she said.
The back end is still important
Even though enterprises are right to look at making investments in customer-facing channels, they must not let the technology that supports them go, said Singh.
"All your front-end customer experiences heavily depend on how robust your back end is," he said. If, for example, an enterprise has a chatbot that relies on data analytics to give the right response, it won't work right if there isn't an appropriate investment in those analytics.
One example of how this is playing out right now: vaccine registration websites. A platform may be easy to use, but only if users can get onto the website. If the website keeps crashing over and over and over again, or won't even load, anger and frustration abounds.
"The front end is just the consumer engagement piece. You've got to look at the end-to-end journey and make sure you continue to shore it up," he said.