One day last February the AV News team was enjoying the hospitality of a very comfortable hotel in Zaandam, taking a pleasant train ride into the RAI to carry out our ISE tasks. Who could have precited that within a month we would all be locked down in ourUK HQ, waiting for the conditions to improve. Things haven’t changed much, but here is. with the assistance of some of our regular contributors, our best guess of what 2021 will bring.
While sales and marketing of AV solutions have been difficult over the last year, some sectors – such as collaboration and remote learning – have undeniably prospered. Leading technology distributor Exertis reports that opportunities and trends for the channel in the year ahead include the strong digital and value-add capabilities vital for businesses to thrive.
The channel has a critical role in the continuing acceleration of digital transformation. Gartner has spoken of a CIO reaction around ‘respond, recover, renew’. The potential for enterprise spending to pick up again will emerge as postponed projects restart. With business models and IT needing to be adjusted to the new reality, digital transformation, automation and Edge solutions will continue to be huge opportunities.
The Covid-19 impact likely to continue to disrupt, but the channel will benefit from supporting 2020’s societal and business changes into 2021. With the new year imminent, Jonathan Wagstaff, business intelligence manager, Exertis Group, predicts that 2021 will see digital transformation and automation continuing to be huge opportunities, Wagstaff says: “These will be the key drivers alongside the growth of Edge solutions that will support the expected IoT systems, vehicles and devices dependent upon them. Unlike centralised cloud provision, Edge needs the channel to push out rather than pull back in, so to speak.”
Looking at potential threats, the Exertis Group’s business intelligence manager believes the macroeconomic shock of Covid-19 combined with the UK leaving the Customs Union could impact both consumer and business demand. “At DCC Technology (the Exertis parent) we benefit from a strong balance sheet and diverse portfolio/geography,” he says. “However, the channel players who lack these advantages, or are lagging in their digital capabilities, may struggle.”
“Now, more than ever, channel businesses without strong digital and value-add capabilities will be at a disadvantage,” Wagstaff continues. “Like any industry we are at the mercy of macroeconomic trends, but a situation where vendors and customers struggle with complexity in the supply chain is going to be beneficial to those organisations who specialise in navigating such complexities.”
In terms of the focuses and capabilities of different sized companies, there’s still evidence of pent-up demand for devices for some verticals, he says. “However, there’s an expectation that enterprise spending will pick up again in 2021 as postponed projects start to restart. We also expect the acceleration of digital transformation to continue; here the channel has a critical role. The largest organisations will likely be further down the road of cloud migration. However, small and medium-sized businesses are still going to need the channel, particularly in countries where cloud adoption is lagging.”
So, what does the future hold, after a turbulent year for many? “Nobody has a functioning crystal ball,” Wagstaff says. “But there are core assumptions amongst the leading market trackers. Even with the good news around vaccines developed in record times, the Covid-19 disruption will continue into the new year. Gartner has spoken of a CIO reaction around respond, recover, renew. ‘Respond’ was about keeping essential functions operating (issuing WFH equipment), ‘recover’ is about stabilisation – which is where many businesses are now. What will be very interesting to see, will be the renewal cycle where business models and IT will need to be adjusted to the new reality.”
This includes a solidifying of working from home practices, he says, “along with business’s networking/device/cloud requirements, and an examination of digital capabilities with the huge and transformational shift online we’ve seen over the last year. Clearly the rush to supply devices was going to be a largely 2020 phenomenon, but we still expect the channel to benefit from supporting these societal and business changes long into 2021.”
So the potential for a decent year is there, but how will end-users buy? Following a year like no other that saw eCommerce hurled five years ahead of its time, 2021 is set to see emerging eCommerce trends that will centre around preparing for the unpredictable.
eCommerce platform provider Kooomo argues that: “If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is out of the realm of possibility as far as the future goes,” says Ciaran Bollard, CEO of Kooomo. “Bricks and mortar retailers were forced to place digital transformation at the top of their agendas and online retailers have had to respond to the immediate, and unprecedented changes to consumer behaviour at the hands of COVID-19.”
Kooomo says that the key trends it expects to see in eCommerce in 2021 are:
- More brands will go Direct to Consumer (DTC)
More and more brands will experiment with Direct to Consumer eCommerce, as sales are expected to grow by 24.3% this year to $17.75 billion. While third-party distributors (for example multi-brand outlets) are likely to always play a part in the consumer goods sales mix, there’s a lot to be said for brands owning everything from logistics to supply chain and everything in between. That, paired with the fact that a large majority of bricks and mortar stores have had to close this year, be it temporarily or permanently, makes DTC a very attractive option for brands.
- Sustainability and belief-based buying will be top of consumers’ list of priorities
No huge surprises here. Sustainability has been at the forefront of demand in recent years, but with online being the main channel for sales in the wake of the pandemic, excess packaging, and the environmental impact of deliveries are going to be highlighted even more in 2021. Not only that, but the lockdown has also sparked a movement of belief-led buying among the masses – opting to buy and support local as much as possible. Now, more than ever, consumers are pledging to vote with their wallets – a trend we fully expect to stretch into 2021 – and beyond.
- Social commerce will continue to grow (but will it take over completely?)
Removing friction from the online shopping experience has long been a topic for businesses to consider, with the primary focus being on the checkout user experience (UX), but more recently on the browsing experience also. By 2021, the global social commerce market is predicted to grow by 34%, and more channels are hopping on board the eCommerce train – most recently with WhatsApp adding a shopping button to business chats.
But while social channels are a no brainer for playing a key part in resellers’ omnichannel strategies, the likelihood of social commerce replacing websites entirely is highly unlikely. Resellers want to be able to maintain control over their customer experience (CX), which is a key differentiator for eCommerce right now – and they will be very limited in what they can then do to set the customer journeys apart if all businesses solely rely on social channels to sell.
- More suppliers will invest in augmented reality
What could arguably have been considered a ‘nice to have’ feature on resellers’ online stores until now, augmented reality is fast becoming a ‘must-have’ in the wake of the pandemic. The try in-store, buy-online tactic hasn’t been available to consumers for much of 2020, meaning that the digital doors must now open for products that have traditionally been deemed ‘something you couldn’t buy before you see it in person’.
Augmented reality is the virtual answer to try before you buy, and will be key to supporting buying decisions, so expect to see more and more brands integrating it into their eCommerce strategy in 2021.
- Content will have to play a greater role in eCommerce
Competition has always been stiff in the online space, and it’s only going to intensify as resellers put digital to the forefront of their strategies. So how can merchants stand out? Well, the expression ‘content is king’ has been doing the rounds for years, but 2021 is the year that retailers who marry eCommerce and content to enrich the customer journey will really get ahead.
Similar to the rise of augmented reality, we envision more brands weaving content into their online stores as a means to showcase their brand values, as well as replicate the in-store experience. Expect to see more product ‘how-to’ videos, as well as storytelling through blog posts, videos, and podcasts. We also expect to see more website pages dedicated to brands’ sustainability pledges, as well as deliveries, returns, meet the team, and more.
- An omnichannel strategy will no longer be optional
Implementing click and collect has probably been the quickest measure used by retailers to deal with the pandemic. In 2018, an average of 52% of online stores had omnichannel capabilities. 2021 is likely to see that trend not only continued but broadened into full omnichannel strategies by businesses of all sizes. This means synchronisation of stock, real-time inventory updates, online and offline loyalty point collection and redemption, unified customer service channels – the list goes on.
Ciaran concludes, “With digital transformation projects sped up this year, 2021 is set to be an exciting year for eCommerce. While there may still be some difficult times ahead for the industry as a whole, those who implement these strategies, and other innovative developments will certainly differentiate themselves from their competitors and have a better chance of succeeding in 2021 and beyond.”
The importance of support and customer service has never been more apparent than during lockdown. Avaya predicts that the contact centre will become the “context centre,” no longer siloed from the rest of the organisation. The pandemic has made clear what we’ve known for so long: the contact centre is about much more than your agent workforce. It’s about every employee across the organisation working to create an effortless and unified customer journey – not just in the contact centre but across all teams, departments and lines of business.
It doesn’t matter what your title is, what your job duties are, or where you are located; we’re all working towards the same goal. Some things will need to happen to create this “context centre.” Most important will be enabling every employee with contact centre capabilities or technologies they can take advantage of. Everyone can benefit from intelligent routing to the right resource, conversational intelligence for real-time conversation transcription, or AI-powered screen pops that help employees anticipate needs and deliver more proactive service. Every employee in the organisation is an extension of the contact centre, and that means everyone should have the best tools to meet customers in the context of the service journey to deliver experiences that matter.
No one could have predicted what would happen in 2020, but we all rose to the meet the challenge. Whether or not my predicted shifts happen, we’ll see the emergence of disruptive new ways of working and thinking that will profoundly impact customer and employee experience in 2021 and beyond.
Video conferencing boost
If all the services benefitting from digital transformation video conferencing must be among the leaders. Paul Scholey, SVP and General Manager, BlueJeans by Verizon predicts how this sudden uplift in video comferencing usage will continue in 2021 and beyond.
“Predictions are always a dangerous game; more so than ever in these wild, unprecedented times! Whoever would have forecast this time last year that video conferencing would explode and become essential to the way we live and work? Playing it a bit safer this year, what follows are three predictions based on what I’m already starting to see play out in our customer base and the wider market.”
- On a ‘burning platform,’ Digital Transformation gains new urgency
In 2021 I predict that companies whose digital transformation programmes stalled will step hard on the accelerator. Even though most companies built strong business cases for digital transformation, some didn’t feel a sense of urgency to move beyond the planning stages. However, when the Covid tide went out it became clear which players were ‘swimming naked’ – to paraphrase Warren Buffet. The early digital innovators with robust UC systems proved so resilient they made a virtually overnight transition to remote working and virtual events. The rest scrambled to play catch up; not only to implement technology but to introduce new processes and adapt the culture. In that sense Covid-19 became the first ‘burning platform’ for Digital Transformation. This crisis year has injected real urgency into innovating for agility, flexibility and resilience.
Deloitte Insights outlined seven ‘digital pivots’ that enterprises must make to achieve digital maturity. One is implementing a ‘flexible, secure infrastructure that balances security and privacy needs with the need to flex capacity according to business demand’ – the very definition of IT resilience. Unified communication – so key to flexible working – will be a top priority in enterprises’ transformation programmes. Fortunately, there is no longer any need to choose between flexibility and security. Smart companies will insist on both.
- Internal comms will become top priority and more sophisticated
Along with a rush to digitally transform, next year I predict organisations will work fast to mature their internal communications programmes. With so many people working remotely, internal communications, once seen by many organisations as ‘nice to have’ (and given minimal resources) will become a top priority in 2021. One thing that’s become abundantly clear is that organisations need to fine-tune their meeting strategies. Everybody’s starting to feel burnt out from attending too many virtual meetings – just like they did with in-person meetings. A lot of this is down to ‘virtual presenteeism’ as people feel added job insecurity and want to be seen to be involved and delivering value. Again, a similar phenomenon occurred with in-person meetings.
To address this, I predict that organisations will communicate and train staff on new ways to prevent meeting burnout, ensuring both productivity and employee wellbeing. One tactic that some are likely to take is changing organisational structures to democratise communication and improve flow. Tall corporate hierarchies that rely on information to be cascaded down becomes very inefficient in virtual office settings and leads to meeting overload. We’ve flattened our own hierarchy so that our CEO communicates to ten reports, rather than two.
Organisations will also introduce a wider range of virtual meetings and events for employees. One notable casualty of remote working has been the office ‘watercooler moment’. Unified comms providers are offering more capabilities to let people spark quick, impromptu chats to address this. At the other end of the spectrum, we see organisations hosting more ‘town hall’ meetings to update employees on key events and answer questions.
In 2021 videoconferencing platforms like ours will help organisations deliver increasingly sophisticated internal comms programmes by adapting to a range of formats beyond the standard meeting. Smart meeting features like whiteboards and annotations, for example, are ideal for creative brainstorming sessions; personal meeting IDs are ideal for ‘watercooler moments’; and intelligent transcriptions that log written meeting highlights and action items support those people who can’t attend every meeting and want to avoid “FOMO”.
- Virtual events will endure and be judged on their own merits
Those old enough to remember the early days of online events in the late 90s and early 2000s might recall great expectations followed by major disappointments – all due to technical immaturity in areas of internet bandwidth AV quality, meeting functionality and security. This year’s crisis led to a renaissance of virtual events. Many were highly successful and boosted this time around by huge technical advances in all the key areas listed above. And while virtual events will never replace the live experience, they have brought many unexpected and unique benefits. That’s why in 2021 I predict that people will stop comparing virtual events to live ones and start judging them more on their own considerable merits.
What are those merits? Above all, video communications technologies have ‘democratised’ events in several important ways. Firstly, they have opened up events to more people from every corner of the world. With many organisations having tightened the purse strings on long-haul corporate travel, so-called ‘global’ events were attracting the majority of delegates from the host city or country. Salesforce, for example, attracted 80,000 live viewers to its first virtual ‘World Tour’ event in Sydney; the live event was only expecting to attract 15,000 attendees.
Virtual events democratise events in other ways beyond attendance numbers. It’s often the case that many people who would like to attend industry events get left behind in favour of more senior or sales executives. But even many of those people who are lucky enough to attend events don’t get to ‘access all areas’. Typically, some attendees are restricted to the exhibit hall, while the more senior people get to attend the inspirational keynote talks and popular breakout sessions.
With most virtual events, everybody’s a VIP. This year event participants have been able to take part in live discussions with renowned speakers from the bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell to the millennial YouTube and comedy sensation, Lillly Singh. Even more democratising is the fact that many of these events are offered free to qualified, registered attendees.
Finally, virtual events provide accessibility to more introverted people who are shy about asking questions, contributing ideas and socialising at live events. One customer told me about their annual company meeting, which ran breakout ‘ideation’ sessions as part of this year’s virtual format. Surprisingly, she found that the quality and quantity of ideas had improved this year because some shier people with great ideas felt more comfortable contributing from their home offices.
Paul concludes: “I have every reason to believe that in 2021 as (hopefully) live events re-emerge in some geographies, organisations will continue to run virtual events in order to continue to engage with people in more countries, more roles and more personality types. These events will increasingly be part of an integrated events strategy of live and virtual and assessed on their own merits.”
UC’s awesome potential
“The symbolic act of starting a fresh new year provides us all with a sense of hope and optimism. However despite all 2020s challenges, let’s remember how people around the world connected in virtual communities to do truly astounding things in the fields of technology, science and medicine. In that sense, it was an awesome global showcase for the power of unified communications.”
Ciaran Bollard, CEO of Kooomo. “Bricks and mortar retailers were forced to place digital transformation at the top of their agendas and online retailers have had to respond to the immediate, and unprecedented changes to consumer behaviour at the hands of COVID-19.”
Paul Scholey, SVP and General Manager, BlueJeans by Verizon predicts how this sudden uplift in video conferencing usage will continue in 2021 and beyond.
Organisations will also introduce a wider range of virtual meetings and events for employees. One notable casualty of remote working has been the office ‘watercooler moment’.