3 key leadership skills of tomorrow revealed in Adobe’s 2021 Digital Trends Report

The Adobe 2021 Digital Trends Report sheds light on the skills CMOs and CIOs need to drive growth in 2021.

A commitment today to the technology, marketing practices and skills of tomorrow is enabling customer experience-led organisations to outpace market growth despite the turbulence of 2020, according to Adobe’s 2021 Digital Trends Report.

More than 70 percent of companies that have successfully aligned strategy and technology to qualify as ‘CX leaders’ outpaced their sectors in the second half of 2020 – and they were three times as likely to have “significantly outpaced” competitors than the mainstream, according to the annual global study.

The 18 percent of organisations categorised as CX leaders were more likely to achieve long-term growth than their competitors and were better positioned to adapt to changeable customer behaviour, markets, and external conditions.

So what can we learn from the experiences of over 13,000 customer experience, marketing, digital and technology professionals that responded to the study? A closer look at the three major trends to emerge from the report, and the experience of digital leaders whose organisations overperformed last year, sheds light on the skills CMOs and CIOs need to drive growth in 2021.

1. ‘New customer’ data gives marketing a say on boardroom strategy

Digital strategy has become the core driver of customer experience and business growth, according to the Digital Trends report, which found that nearly half of consumer-facing companies reported an influx of customers previously unknown to them, and two-thirds of these reported unusual growth in digital or mobile traffic.

One-in-two respondents found that the buying journeys and purchase habits of existing customers have changed, while more than one-third reported a drop in customer loyalty. Meanwhile, 77 percent of senior executives said the need to understand this new, digital customer led to marketing departments and teams taking a more active role in strategy during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 forced our traditional customers online and we had the data systems in place to learn what they want and how they behave,” one respondent reported. “The executive committee is looking to marketing to be the voice of this ‘new’ customer.”

Marketing and digital leaders that can quickly identify key customer insights, including drivers of loyalty and purchase, were more likely to achieve marketing budget increases, with CX leaders significantly more likely to be increasing their 2021 budgets than the mainstream (60 percent compared with 39 percent).

The findings highlight the importance not only of offering a high-quality digital experience, but of being able to access, measure and interpret customer data to quickly improve the customer experience, driving growth and influencing strategic priorities.

A case in point, Hay, an Australian fintech provider that uses Adobe Experience Cloud to manage its wholly digital customer experience, launched its app, website and go-to-market campaign in February of 2020, just as the impact of the pandemic began to take hold.

The team used Adobe Analytics to track customer behaviour and improve the digital experience in a range of areas, including how consumers were interacting with the Hay app, and how they responded to the brand’s TinyBig rewards referral program. That data was used to improve the app and plan the next iteration of its loyalty program. Hay also used customer data to better identify drop-offs in the onboarding process and areas for improvement, increasing the rate of conversion from initial app opening to completion by 265 percent in just one week.

“By measuring how our customers are interacting with our business and making significant improvements to their experiences, we’ve been able to grow even in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Hay’s head of digital Brad Pidgeon.

2. Cloud-enabled flexible work culture becomes a hiring differentiator

The shift to remote work will be the most significant and enduring effect of the pandemic, according to the Digital Trends report, which found its influence would be felt by all organisations as employees work and collaborate remotely and make more purchases online and via mobile.

Two-thirds of respondents expected their organisation to adopt increasingly hybrid approaches to work, with fewer people in the office and more remote employees. While one-in-three marketers are looking forward to returning to the office, there is a new-found appreciation of the latitude that remote and hybrid work environments offer, with managers citing “flexibility” as more important than “total compensation” and behind only “career progression” to their teams.

What’s more, 70 percent of executive managers said productivity in this new remote workplace was stable or improved.

For digital leaders, enabling “work from anywhere” for their organisations is an opportunity for them to help attract and retain staff in a talent pool that may now extend internationally. “The smartest companies are already investing in their remote workplace options because they know that this is how to maximise their returns today and will be a hiring differentiator moving forward,” the report found.

It’s an attitude that has spread to once-conservative industries, as well as startups. Westpac Group head of group brands, advertising and media, Jenny Melhuish, says the banking group is among those taking advantage of the new, more flexible workplace. “I work in a multi-brand multi-state organisation and it really excites me that we can have talent from anywhere in Australia, possibly the world now, which is great for careers, it’s great for problem-solving and it’s great for the industry in general.”

Flexible, cloud-based technology is a key enabler of both the new employee and the new customer experience, according to Adobe chief technology advisor Scott Rigby. “Marketing and CX teams have managed to pivot really quickly, partly due to the use of software-as-a-service technology in the cloud so it doesn’t matter where you work,” Rigby says.

“Access anywhere” is one of three guiding principles on which the digital transformation of Hong Kong-based retail, automotive and healthcare conglomerate Dah Chong Hong has been based – along with ‘Agile’ and ‘Automated’. The company recently transformed its e-commerce offering using Adobe Experience Cloud, Magento Commerce and Adobe Campaign to create one portal from which customers can see all their orders, and employees can manage the digital customer experience, regardless of where they’re based.

“By following these principles,” says CIO Tony Mok, “DCH can better meet the needs of our employees, partners, and customers while standing out from competitors – technically, operationally, and culturally.”

3. An agile approach to technology enables speed to insight and action

The ability to use technology to facilitate business agility has emerged as a core skill of CX leaders, according to the Digital Trends report.

Speed to insight and action emerged as one of the keys to success in the unpredictable business environment of 2021, the report found, while workflow issues, legacy technology and a lack of digital skills were the top obstacles to agility within teams.

Digital leaders are increasingly looking to employ automation and AI to ease bottlenecks, simplify and speed up repeatable tasks, and launch follow-up actions. Other priorities for 2021 included enhanced personalisation, ensuring staff were using tools to their full capacity, and operationalising key functions, such as analytics and database management.

IndiGo, India’s largest and most popular passenger airline, exemplified many of the benefits a more agile approach to technology could deliver during the pandemic. With call centres and physical operations shut down, the airline extended its customer-support services to digital services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, where chatbots shared timely, personalised messages with customers – such as offering a “Plan B” option to those whose flights had been cancelled, allowing them to re-book or request a refund at no additional cost.

Digital services such as these delivered three times the “return on experience” for the business due to “the enhanced experience on the customer front,” according to Nitin Sethi, IndiGo’s vice president of digital.

How the digital customer experience is shaping the skills of tomorrow

Perhaps the overriding message of the 2021 Digital Trends Report is that CX leaders have built their success over the past year on being able to quickly understand and respond to the changing needs of their new, digital customer.

While tangible measures and skills often take precedence, leaning into empathy as a corporate muscle to inform employee, brand purpose and customer initiatives will be a priority for 2021. Trust among employees and customers alike is to be nurtured in turbulent times.

All paths contribute to the continuing quest for a unified customer experience that enables CIOs and CMOs to cater to changing customer needs in real time.

Adobe’s Scott Rigby agrees achieving a unified customer experience remains an ongoing challenge: “It’s the holy grail — very few businesses can say they’ve done it,” Rigby says.

It’s a challenge that digital leaders will continue to pursue in 2021.