It’s time to get back to normal. That’s what you’ve been telling yourself, your colleagues, your investors, your other stakeholders. But what does “normal” look like for 2021 and beyond?

If we think in terms of the marketplace, “normal” means positioning yourself to be competitive. Yet after the upheaval of last year, how do you know where things truly stand? In other words, how do you know what activities were a temporary pivot and what activities you need to track or match for the future?

Whatever consumer behavioral changes may have arisen in 2020 and however they may evolve moving forward, there is always underlying data to support reality. How and where you find that data may also evolve, but starting with what’s at hand–marketing, sales and/or loyalty program data–will give you a good base.

Once you have an idea of what’s happening, it’s time to plan. If you organize your thinking in terms of today, tomorrow and things yet to come, there are three areas of opportunity you can seize now to guide your next steps.

Reexamine, then reinforce your infrastructure

Did the pandemic force an acceleration of digital transformation initiatives you had already planned, or was it an unexpected overhaul of how you operate? If you haven’t already, you need to evaluate how well you were able to respond and address customer expectations and needs. Be honest. Where did you succeed, and where did you fall short?

During this review and self-reflection it’s critical to look at the end-to-end experience you’re providing for customers. Is your marketing adequately tailored? Does your loyalty program drive consistency with relevant and timely rewards? Do you have adequate options for point of sale interactions? Is your digital experience intuitive and reliable? Most importantly, are all of the stages in the customer journey served by a support system that provides a seamless transition from start to finish?

According to an April 2021 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit and SAP Customer Experience, Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z shoppers bought significantly more online during the pandemic — and with the exception of Gen Z, all generations are expected to maintain these online shopping gains long after the pandemic ends. And with a rise in spending via social media advertising, customers are defining new rules in how to interact with brands. Whether you upgrade or overhaul your systems, offerings and processes on your own or in partnership with an expert, you need to ensure your system capabilities and integrations are up to the new tasks consumers continue to lay out for brands.

Embrace the innovations of others

It’s normal to keep tabs on what the other players in your field are doing. Particularly during the pandemic, noting what was and wasn’t working was a make-or-break endeavor. But industry leaders don’t lead by resting on their laurels.

Over the past year Chipotle established “Chipotlanes,” inspiring others to designate physical space to more efficiently service digital orders. In a similar vein, Chipotle and others have accelerated the rise of “ghost kitchens,” facilities to prep and process food orders strictly for carryout or delivery. And Panera is embracing the future of work with catering options that have adapted to hybrid workplace models.

In retail, brands like Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, Gucci and others have been using virtual showrooms or VR experiences that go beyond typical ecommerce setups to sell clothing, cosmetics, bicycles and home goods. The goal for these brands is to not just reach consumers, but to address an expressed consumer desire for more personalized experiences when they shop.

There’s a Zen proverb that says, “It takes a wise man to learn from his mistakes, but an even wiser man to learn from others.” Part of innovation is experimentation. Learn from what others have already done (even others in different industries), then adopt and adapt their successes to help build or expand innovations that meet the needs of your particular customer base.

Extrapolate from industry trends and outliers

Near-term needs may be easier to visualize, but part of being a leader is a willingness to take some risk. Although contactless payments have become much more common in the U.S. in large part due to the pandemic, European countries have been leading in that market for years. And they continue to take things to the next level.

Earlier this year Russia’s largest food retailer began testing a “Pay with Your Face” initiative. Biometric technology is not new, but the implications of a contactless solution that is potentially even more convenient for consumers is important, despite some lingering concerns about privacy and security.

With convenience driving so much of the customer decision making process these days, it’s not surprising to see new partnerships arise, like the acquisition of leading Israeli omnichannel ordering and marketing platform Tictuk Technologies by U.S.-based Yum! Brands. As brands continue to look for ways to provide an integrated customer experience, multipurpose, multitouch technology options may be the next big thing.

That’s not to say you have to predict whether or when you need to act on these or other events, but they should be on your radar. When it comes to everyday technology, the science fiction of the past is now the science of today and tomorrow. By keeping yourself apprised of what’s going on locally and globally, you’re also keeping yourself open to any and all opportunities waiting down the line that you might be able to put your own spin on.

Maintaining a strong position in the industry, no matter what industry you’re in, is key. By addressing the current gaps in your technology infrastructure, setting stretch goals and being strategic in your planning–leaving yourself enough room to be agile and adapt–you’re setting yourself up to not just stay in the race or even keep pace, but to outlast the competition in the long run.

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