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Leading with Technology In The Membership Sector

Jay Neale – CEO, cloudThing

The world has changed and everyone’s gone to the digital rapture

*Transcript from cloudThings recent Membership Sector Digital Conference

 

The world has changed…

And actually, I don’t think it’ll ever go back to exactly the way it was before COVID-19, with people embracing new ways of working, socialising and living.

A great example for this is an event we were planning with Microsoft recently and had to cancel. Rather than just waiting for lockdown to be over though we decided to run it virtually and instead of twenty or so people within thirty miles of London turning up we’ve had attendees from Ireland, South Africa, the USA, Finland and Canada.

We’ve all faced challenges thrown up by the current climate but with the right technology and attitude there are still opportunities out there for an organisation to pivot and grow.

 

In fact, one of the big things I've noticed over the last few weeks is that there's been a massive trend towards ‘eyeballs’ on a business’s webinars and content.  

We’re all at home after all.

Maybe some people will have a bit more time than others but the number of requests I've had to attend a webinar or various other meetings has increased massively and they’ve all seemed to be on the same topic or theme.

No matter how far along our digital transformation journey each of us might be, COVID-19 has changed the way we approach things.

It’s probably made us go a little bit faster and a little bit harder into Digital than we might have before but as I said, there’s real opportunities out there for those who are ready to pivot and grab them.

 

cloudThing was founded as a vehicle for change in a fast-paced world with an ethos of #BuildFuture.

But what does that mean?

That means thinking about the long-term.

It means when you're making decisions today, think about how you can pay it forward. Think about what you might want to achieve in five years’ time because you can potentially make a choice today that will make it exponentially easier to achieve a long-term goal.

And you should try for that mind set every day; don't just be tactical.

 

Always try and think about your long-term view because, quite often, there’ll be no additional cost to doing something slightly differently today that's really going to make a difference down the line.

Why Is Leading With Technology Important?

As that’s the main point I want to get across, I started by thinking how I use technology in my own life (and as you can imagine, running a tech business, there's quite a lot of it!)

And I concluded that it pretty much permeated every single aspect of my life.

In fact, with the advent of the coronavirus and the rapid changes to the world we’ve all gone through I’d say that's even gone faster and deeper in recent weeks.

Take banking for example.

 

I can't honestly remember the last time I went into a bank, instead using my card or iPhone (in fact I’ll probably try not to use cash at all now going forward).

Does that mean cash is dead?

Is that one of the things that’s going to change?

Should we all be thinking about the various ways we enable people to pay for services with us?

Because let’s be honest, at least in the short term, who's going to want to touch things?

Just think about how you order a takeaway.

 

I literally can't stand picking up the phone to my local pizza place, trying to spell my address to them three or four times and then repeating the order over and over again, only to find they can't find my address and when they finally do the orders still wrong. It’s so much easier to just order via an app.

 

That physical disconnect is literally everywhere, even in the way I socialise now.

Absolutely some physical socializing is great but how much would we all struggle without WhatsApp or Facebook or all the other platforms that people use daily?

COVID-19 has really focussed that with a massive uptake in in the way everybody is now consuming Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

It almost feels like everyone's become a guru on using these platforms, changing their backgrounds etc, being empowered to engage with these types of technology.

I remember my parents struggling when lockdown first came into effect but are now experts in using various video conferencing apps.

 

But why are technologies like this permeating our life so much, even before the coronavirus crisis?

Well, I think there's a number of factors.

 

  • It removes unnecessary interactions - Not everybody wants to pick up the phone; some people just aren’t comfortable with that; they give us the opportunity to get what we need when we need it.
  • It’s mobile - I know we're not particularly mobile at the moment but the great thing about tech is that it’ll go wherever you go. Being able to interact with the services you want, wherever you might be is important.
  • It's personal - Tech has the ability to be personalized and tailored, remembering who you are and what you like and what you don't.
  • It reduces human error - it makes services better in the way they delivered.

 

So it really is everywhere.

Sometimes it's done well, sometimes not so well.

One thing I do know though is that whatever we’re doing digitally will be compared to what others are doing digitally, whether that be their platforms, company or organisation.

We both judge and are being judged all the time which means new technology should absolutely be part of all our strategies, now more than ever.

 

During the COVID-19 era we’ll be likely be judged on how well we deliver on our promises and how we deliver our services.

Therefore, it's incumbent on us to take a leadership approach to the way in which use we use technology.

Ultimately, we have no choice in that as expectations have massively exploded over the past ten years or so. People's expectations of what good looks like and how they should receive their services have massively increased and those expectations levels have increased across all sectors… including the Membership sector.

Membership Expectation

Engagement, Engagement, Engagement!

It’s easy to say that a member of an organisation probably wants more engagement, but they’ll only want that engagement if it's good engagement.

Being bombarded by poor engagement is very, very frustrating.

So, let's assume we all want to increase engagement with our Members.

First off, is there a base line to start from; to measure our ROI?

What do we try and measure, can it be measured and if it can how do we bring that together into a cohesive view?

 

  • Website visits?
  • Event signups?
  • Click throughs?
  • Self-service request purchases?
  • Upgrade requests?
  • Support requests?

 

But then… even if we can measure it and get all that data into one place, what do we do with it then?

How can we easily use that data and turn it into something that automates a Member’s personalisation experience?

Personalisation Is Key

Members want an experience that’s personalised with fresh content served up to them on demand. Content that they know is aimed at them as part of a journey that they can recognise is tailored to themselves.

It’s too easy to fall into that trap of thinking it’s a onetime thing, that you kind of understand who somebody is and then that's it forever.

 

Actually, it's not.

 

Membership engagement should be a real time thing that adapts and grows with members as they do.

We need to be able to understand that they've changed and change with them.

Now those changes won't always be obvious, so it needs to be scientific, with decisions being made based on the data we hold.

That means we need to think about how we understand our Members and to do that, we need to think about our Data Architectures, how we can get those altogether and once we have how we make the best use of them.

And that's where the key differentiators really are. It's more than just knowing somebody's name.

You know that's not good enough.

We need to know how they interact, how they navigate, what their preferences are, past behaviours and purchase histories.

Ultimately however the Holy Grail of data is being able to make predictions and that’s where you need to be ahead of everyone else, using AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) to make them.

Social Media In Membership

I'm sure we're all doing ‘some’ social but how well are we doing it?

Do we have the right tools?

Is it integrated with our CRM?

How does it affect what we do?

Is it just for putting content out for the sake of it or is it a bit more strategic than that?

Will the CRM integration allow us to collect more (useful) information about our members journeys?

Operational Overheads

I think Operational often gets overlooked.

In my experience Members want to know that you'll be delivering a great value proposition but they also want to know that you're doing that with maximum efficiency so that their subsidies or the money that they pay in is being spent efficiently.

How many reading this can truly say they’ve looked at their business processes, reigned in off system process and looked at the opportunities around robotic process automation?

Can menial tasks be automated so that those staff can be adding more meaningful value into the businesses elsewhere?

And again, Predictive Science and platforms like Power Automate can be a really big help there as well.

Value Propositions

And finally, all those points come together in your value propositions.

Many of us are clear about what our value proposition is and how well we’re communicating it.

But has it been received and understood by our membership base?

 

There’ll be many instances we're what we’re delivering isn't a physical product or certainly not all physical.

Often it can be a little more amorphous or difficult to evaluate as it’s evolving overtime and that makes it a little bit more important and a little bit more difficult to get people to judge its value and that's probably been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But I guess I'd also say it’s a two-way commitment between yourselves and your members.

You know right now your members will need you for guidance just as much as you need them for the revenue.

 

And we should all remember that we're in this together by asking, how can we help each other?

 

We know some people may have more time at home and are looking to upskill/re-skill and certainly looking for guidance on how they can achieve that.

So valued and trusted leadership is absolutely being looking for.

 

Ultimately however, technology is both part of the solution but also part of the problem.

My experiences with our customers across all industries (but particularly the Membership sector) is that tech has become the biggest blocker within their organisation.

There are too many legacy systems that have prevented companies from providing a good experience to their Membership base.

Too often at the moment, with Legacy Technologies we hear it can't be done or it will be very, very difficult.

So we need to change that round to help really define what value propositions are in the new normal and really seize those opportunities in the new world.

Everyone reading this will have technology in their business already.

We might have some.

We may have a lot.

We may have all the bits of the jigsaw that we’d expect to see in a modern solution.

It may not all be new; the IT infrastructure may be old and it may be siloed or it might not be doing what we really need it to do. It’s likely it’s not integrated.

All in all, it's very unlikely any of us have a completely green field IT landscape.

 

We need to really think about how many applications we do have.

One of the things that we see in a lot of organizations before we even get started on the actual digital transformation journey is understanding what they've already got and we always find all sorts of really interesting things; apps that have been proliferating in the background that IT knew nothing about or leadership teams that didn't know anything about the things that IT were doing.

And we've even had situations where customers have applications they didn't know they had or  thought they had applications that had been retired years ago.

Those kinds of issues really are out there proliferating and one of the things we need to do is get a grip on that.

How can we bring all those disparate ‘things’ together if we don't even know what they are?

We also find that with a lot of these legacy applications that some of them are burning through resources whilst causing a lot of problems for our customers.

 

  • They might not be supported anymore.
  • Everything else has moved to the Cloud but this particular application.
  • It can't be upgraded because it’s been extended so much over the years that it's now too many versions behind
  • The people that really understood that application have left

 

So quite often there's some real key drivers there besides the market itself that you may need to address.

 

We also find there’s a lot of chaos around processes; quite often when we get involved with a Membership organisation, they’ll say “here's a pack with a list of all of our processes that covers everything”.

We’ll then start looking at those and find that's only about a quarter of the processes they have because they've only focused on the ones that are on-system and not those that are off-system or the ones that are actually just work arounds because the systems are blocking them from doing what they really need to do.

 

That means it’s often about understanding what those processes really look like and what the opportunities are to deliver a better experience, both internally in your back office and more importantly in terms of the value proposition to the membership community that you're trying to engage with.

Data Chaos

We see a lot of data chaos.

One of the first tasks we often get involved with is mapping out a data landscape to understand what data an organisation has available.

What data is out there and what’s it doing?

Typically, we find a lot of it is again, off-system, being shipped around on spreadsheets as well as duplicated in multiple databases and directories.

 

We all know how much power there is in data and I'm sure we all appreciate that you can't really leverage data without first having the right data architectures. That’s why it’s so important to tame an organisations data first.

But as well as badly architected data structures, there might be suboptimal UX legacy experiences preventing people from engaging with you in the way that they want to which often leads to Member frustration.

All of that comes together in preventing an organisation from really leveraging the full potential and making a difference.

 

So I think one of the big challenges in terms of leading with technology has to be about taming the chaos that already exists out there.

It's not always about just throwing everything away and starting again but instead finding a way to tame the chaos that already exists both inside our businesses and outside.

Why Are You Digitally Transforming?

The first thing is really understanding why we're trying to transform in the first place.

According to some measures, over 80% of transformation projects will fail and in my experience a large proportion of those will be simply down to not really understanding why they needed to transform or what they were trying to achieve in the first place.

That means understanding those reasons and getting them right is vital. Having different reasons to transform can lead to different routes to getting there.

 

  • Are you being defensive?
  • Are you trying to be disruptive?
  • Are you trying to enter new geographical markets?
  • Are you trying to enter new vertical markets?

 

All those things really play into the way in which your digital transformation journey needs to be approached.

What Does Success Look Like?

It’s important to understand what success looks like and be clear about it before you start as measuring benefits is quite a difficult thing to do.

It’s easy with things like finance or new member acquisition or retention or your membership churn rate or the number of processes that have been decommissioned or automated… but much more difficult with the softer benefits around the value proposition.

That’s why you need to be clear about what success would look like, so you can actually tie what you’re doing towards those measures of success and ensure that everything that you do is a step along that journey.

Choosing The Right Platform Ecosystem

cloudThing are a Microsoft House and although we do use lots of other, different cloud environments, we favour the Microsoft platform because of the ecosystem that sits around it.

There’s such a great plethora of services from the platform.

Dynamics, Azure, the Power Platform,

They all allow a host of different approaches to building complex, big data solutions or low code/no code solutions.

Build Future

Circling back to cloudThings Build Future ethos that I mentioned; architecting for the future, both for your solution architecture and your data architecture is massively important.

Small decisions made today can have a really huge impact down the line, which is why we always encourage our clients to have a vision about where they’d want to five, ten or even fifteen years from now.

Even if you don't accomplish everything you set out to, making some really core good decisions today can really help mitigate the cost and ensure re-platforming in future won’t be necessary.

Everything should be geared towards incremental and continuous improvement nowadays rather than ‘Big Bang’ moves from one system to the next to the next to the next.  

Consume Solved Problems

I think I'd always suggest to at try and consume solved problems.

What do I mean by that?

There are things that people are great at which instantly can solve a problem.

Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel yourself, focus on the things that really matter to your business. A great example is SQL.

Microsoft SQL as a service is something you can easily adopt (or consume) by using Azure. You see, Microsoft are pretty good with stuff like that.

They’ve designed and built a database that they’ll also run for you.

Why would you want to build and run a database when somebody’s already solved that problem and can do it for you faster, better and more securely; meanwhile letting you really focus on the things that are important to the organisation.

The same probably goes with Cognitive services for AI and ML as well.

OOTB (Out Of The Box)/Configure/Integrate/Dev

This is where you need to think about how you want to approach your development lifecycle.

Does an Out of the Box solution come first, which then gets configured and integrated; thus making development the priority?

Of course, the less development you do and the more Out of the box configuration you can use, the less overhead and technical debt you're creating.

If you do need to develop, just make sure you do it in the right way, following accepted, industry best practices so as not to accrue problems for yourself down the line.

MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

In terms of how you get to market and make changes, Minimum Viable Product is always a mantra that we would recommend.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the ‘bells and whistles’ and the ‘wouldn't it nice’ of a solution.

In my experience it’s much better to get a minimum viable product to market as quickly as possible and then have a period of continuous improvement afterwards in which you continue to develop and enhance your services.

MVP empowers that whilst also allowing you feedback from your membership along the transformation journey.

That means your solutions can become more targeted because they’ll be based on the feedback and engagement that you get from your Members.

It also come with the added benefit of making them feel like their requirements are being listened to and acted on giving you continuous feedback cycle for deployment.

Embedding A New Culture and WoW (Way Of Working)

To do any the above you're going to need a new type of culture and way of working.

Changing your culture to a one of continuous development, continuous improvement and continuous deployment will offer continuous benefits to your members, manifesting in constant releases and constant upgrades for them to engage with.

Multi Discipline Suppliers

And finally look for the right supplier(s).

It should all be about multidisciplinary in today's world (and tomorrow’s as well).

It's not all about just having a software provider or a cloud hosting provider or a system integrator or a DevOps provider or a data specialist.  

A good supplier these days needs to be all those things.

That's the only way to arrive at the best (and most efficient) solutions).  

Impact Of The Coronavirus On The Membership Sector

Finally, I thought I’d quickly discuss how COVID-19 may have affected the membership sector.  

Actually, my view is that it probably hasn't changed the challenges that we all face, but it might be shining a light just a little brighter on some areas where things aren't quite as good as they could be.

 

I’ve already mentioned that people's expectations have increased.

They’re consuming more digital because that's the only way they can consume services now (and they probably also have a little bit more time to do so in).

 

One of the strangest dichotomies to come from the coronavirus pandemic is probably the fact that most businesses want to be a little bit more cautious in the way they invest when in fact our members are looking for all of us to go faster and quicker and harder; creating challenges for us all.

So really, it's probably about not change. The challenge haven't changed.

 

What has is probably the priority of those. Forcing us to re-evaluate our priority lists.

We all need to make sure we can get the most value out as quickly as possible because clearly the sector is vying for attention whilst everyone's at home.

And as I said at the beginning, we're all being judged.

The decisions we make now in this tumultuous time will be being judged and the actions we take today will very much be remembered by our members and form their views of the kind of organization we are going forward.

 

During and post COVID-19 organizations within the Membership sector have a real opportunity to grow their digital estate and not just go back to an old way of doing things because that's the easy thing to do.

It's a real opportunity both for the sector and its members.

Get the data right and then really think about Machine Learning to help reduce member churn.

Just a 5% reduction in that churn can lead to quite significant increases in revenue.

Existing Members are more likely to try recommended products.

 

My final thought would be how many of us can claim they can truly measure the value of a member over the lifetime of their journey, plan for that and reduce churn whilst also increasing efficiency and revenue off the back of that data?

Not quite ready to get back to work just yet?

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