Taking to the digital highways

Published March 29, 2021, 6:00 AM

by Vince Socco

One of the most evident outcomes of the Covid pandemic is the shift to digital – both economic and social. The suddenness and scale of the shift should have been enough to set a new Richter seismic record. In fact, it exposed the soft underbelly of the country in terms of our level of preparedness in the digital world.

When Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was imposed, the country went into a physical lockdown. The only way to remain connected was through the digital pathways. Social media became the main way of staying in touch with friends and family. It was how news was disseminated and voraciously consumed – fake, true and every shade of grey.

Since people were confined to their homes, they had to deal with their needs on a day to day basis. There was no playbook for this. The man on the street was hard pressed to make ends meet but it was truly amazing that they always seemed to have enough “load” on their phones. They had an insatiable need to remain connected while physically distanced.

Many households had to resort to online services to meet their needs for groceries, food deliveries and even retail therapy. The surge in deliveries pushed online delivery providers like Grab to the limits. Online banking, payment of bills, sending of financial support spread like wildfire.

Spiritual needs were served online, too, with the closure of churches to the public. And, of course, schools went from classrooms to living or dining rooms.

On the economic side, businesses had no other way to engage with customers except through digital platforms. Restaurants, retail shops and medical consultations – to name a few – migrated from face-to-face interactions to the web. And who can forget the meteoric rise of virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meets and a host of others. Suddenly, meeting rooms at offices emptied. Even with the eventual reopening of workplaces, meetings remained online regardless if the participants were all in the office. Electronic signatures became commonplace. The number of online stock traders rose.

The “from home” suffix was truly made possible for a range of activities – work, school, church, retail, medical consults – solely because of the digital ecosystem.

This unplanned rise in demand for bandwidth stressed our infrastructure to unimaginable levels. It actually caused President Duterte and many government officials to call on telecoms providers to – in so many words – shape up or ship out. One thing good that came out of it was that roadblocks to the improvement of our network were exposed and, tentatively, declogged.

Automotive retailing was not exempt from the rush to the digital highways. New product launches shifted from hotels to the “ballrooms” of Youtube and Facebook. Showrooms went virtual – allowing customers to get in and out of cars online. Customer relations transformed from handshakes to awkward hand gestures online. Servicing of cars had to be by appointment only, made through a variety of owner-apps rolled out by car makers and dealers.

Clearly, customer behavior has been deeply impacted by Covid and the ensuing quarantines. The question is how much of these changes are here to stay and how much will fade back to “old normal”? What new behaviors will truly make the customer experience better?

Digital showrooms? I think that while they might prove to be a draw, the novelty will wear out when physical distancing becomes less compelling with the roll-out of vaccines. As long as autos remain an aspiration, people will want to return to showrooms for the touch-and-feel experience. For purchases that are more transactional in nature – fleets, in particular – the digital showrooms might retain a limited attraction due to a focus more on product specs than the tactile experience.

Owner apps? I think this will have a more lasting appeal because this has the added value of convenience and ease of doing business – from making service appointments to scheduling test drives. I see these apps multiplying its functionalities in leaps and bounds. Car owners will, by now, realize how much better they can manage their time and their ownership experience through these apps.

Virtual product launches? In terms of customer engagement, this does not bode well. I think this might  survive in a hybrid form. A combination of limited live audiences and a broader targetted online viewership. A critical driver here will be the cost effectiveness offered by the virtual stage.

Surely, the shift to digital in the Philippines is irreversible. It will grow even faster due to the increase in technology-huggers that were “born” in our one year with Covid, so far. But that shift may falter if we do not get our digital ecosystem in order. That would be unfortunate because, truly, staying in place is not an option if we are to sustain our economic rise.

[email protected]