Digital preparedness

With millions around the world staying at home, business is most definitely not operating as usual. This sedentary shift has altered many aspects of our lives, perhaps most notably how and where we buy things and spend our time. For the time being, most of us will do everything online from our device of choice.

This crisis has also illuminated a hard truth for businesses: Far too many were not digitally prepared enough to weather this storm.

Though it's hard to say, many businesses could have thoroughly prepared for the unprecedented size and scale of this crisis — and hindsight is always close to 20/20. Customers have been moving online in droves for years as brick-and-mortar has given way to digital storefronts that offer advantages.

Businesses of all digital maturity levels have been hit hard by this pandemic. However, those that have already invested heavily in their digital infrastructures may stand the best chance of surviving. Upon the empty toilet paper shelves and physical bank closures sits a pressing question: How do we digitally prepare for large-scale crises?

Digital Preparedness For Essential Online Services

Though "essential" services, such as voting, grocery and health care, are allowed to remain open, these large and complex sectors must adhere to strict regulations and are often designed to engage with citizens/customers/patients in a physical environment first, digitally second. Many simply aren't structured with digital preparedness in mind or have not invested enough in their digital capabilities to handle the surge of online-only transactions.

However, as most restaurants move to takeout or delivery only, and as hospitals and clinics request only urgent patients visit, they have no choice.

In its recent guidance to CIOs, Gartner noted, "The value of digital channels, products and operations is immediately obvious to companies everywhere right now...Businesses that can shift technology capacity and investments to digital platforms will mitigate the impact of the outbreak and keep their companies running smoothly now, and over the long term."

Essential services benefit from inherent demand that comes with being a necessity, which tends to shield them from competition or churn. In times like these, it's unlikely someone will shop around for days for a new bank or health care provider if they're displeased with the digital experience offered by their current one. But nonessential services — local restaurants, coffee shops, online retailers — don't have such luxury, meaning the consequences of a lack of digital preparedness could put them out of business.

Accessibility In A Time of Crisis

A critical component of digital preparedness during a time of crisis, especially one like this that has radically shifted how and where we purchase goods and services, is accessibility. Prior to this crisis, most businesses aimed their digital initiatives at a target audience — a specific use case or market persona they wanted to attract and retain.

That certainly remains the case. However, the fact that we can no longer obtain most goods or services through any other means other than online changes the conversation around availability, accessibility and security. Given the current climate, a large percentage of people who might engage with a product or service will now do so online.

For businesses that were previously only skimming the surface of accessibility for their digital services, this means they now must expand this across the board to bring in marginalized groups who were previously not digital-first, such as seniors and those with limited access to the internet.

Building this capability is possible and can help set businesses up to weather this storm and prepare them for future crises. It first requires technology, which is readily available today to aid them in creating more streamlined, automated and seamless customer experiences, particularly in the onboarding/sign-up process, a step in the customer journey where they say their experience can be made or broken.

Secondly, it requires businesses to understand the needs of a wider demographic who may engage with their product or service. Technology can only be effectively applied if it's addressing the right challenge, and to accurately understand challenges, businesses must acquire a strong sense of their current and potential customers, many of whom represent an entirely new target audience.

For many people uncomfortable or unfamiliar with digital services, common onboarding processes like two-factor authentication and document verification can be foreign and confusing. To truly increase accessibility during a time of crisis, empathy is vital. Businesses must put themselves in the shoes of their previously least-accessible customers, which enables them to be better prepared to create the best experiences for the broadest ranges of customers who may suddenly turn to their digital services during a crisis.

Final Thoughts

Businesses are challenged with keeping pace with this new normal. Though some are better prepared for this digital world than others, perhaps we should view this as both a challenge and an opportunity to invest in our digital preparedness for the long term. Eventually, stores will reopen and cash will flow once again, but the longer we become more accustomed to an online-only world, the more comfortable we will be living in it post-crisis.

Whether classified as essential or nonessential, companies that don't build available, accessible and secure digital systems today won't just be lagging when this crisis is over. I believe they likely won't exist at all.

New York Times columnist Kevin Roose wrote that the current situation "...is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used — to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems."

The opportunity for businesses to play a vital connecting role during these times cannot be overstated. Now is the time to invest in the resources to do so.

This article first appeared on Forbes.