Tech Support: How Digital Platforms Are Helping Businesses Through Covid-19
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Tech Support: How Digital Platforms Are Helping Businesses Through Covid-19

Digital platforms are keeping many businesses on solid financial ground during the ever-shifting swings in the Covid-19 economy.

Charles Thayer, an exterior general contractor, decided this was the year to incorporate drone technology into his company’s processes. Not that he had a lot of choice.

“We were always planning on doing it, but the pandemic pushed us toward it a little faster,” says Thayer, whose company, Long Lake-based All Around, specializes in projects for multihousing complexes, particularly roofing and siding.

The Covid-19 outbreak required All Around to maintain social distancing and provide clients with necessary information “without having to climb all over their properties or meet with them face-to-face,” Thayer says.

All Around has been using a drone to survey multihousing units, steep roofs, and elevated areas that are difficult for humans to access. Drone photos and videos “are invaluable for our clients to see, and for us to fully evaluate roofing jobs,” Thayer says.

Jazmin Spreiter with a drone
Jazmin Spreiter operates a drone for All Around, an exterior general contractor that is based in Long Lake.

The drone has “changed the way we’ve been able to market and promote our services,” he adds. “The images that we can capture are incredibly valuable for our crews, too. Using the drone saves them inspection time and reduces personal safety risks when they need to access steeper or narrow areas.” All Around also is using other software connected to the drone that can measure projects and create renderings of finished projects.

“It has helped us sustain our business,” Thayer says. And one more thing: “We also had an excellent candidate to take on the position.” That would be his daughter, Jazmin Spreiter, who operates the drone for All Around while she pursues her plans to become a commercial pilot. She uses her iPhone to operate the drone and its attached camera.

Doing business remotely, one way or another, is something numerous companies have had to learn during the pandemic. All Around’s drone may not be typical of the kind of tech that businesses are using to stay in business, but it’s one example of how companies have had to become even more tech-centric, and to speed up implementation of new technology. By now, it’s all too clear that Covid-19 wasn’t simply a three-month blip. Whether employees are working from home, on factory floors or in retail outlets, companies of all kinds are deploying technology to make processes more efficient and maintain human contact during this long period of social distancing.

Many business leaders suspect that once the pandemic eases, those tech-driven changes in their operations will persist in the new normal. 

‘Rolling normal’

One could describe the current economic situation using one of Matt Kucharski’s terms: “next normal” or “rolling normal.” In other words, businesses of all kinds will most likely need to get used to the changes and uncertainties the pandemic unleashed. 

“We’re not going to be able to roll the clock back to January 1,” says Kucharski, president of Minneapolis-based business communications firm Padilla. “In fact, most businesses don’t want to go back 100 percent to the way it was. They’ve been able to change some things and get some technologies implemented that they’ve wanted to do for a while—and that they’ve wanted customers to adopt. Now they’ve had an event that has allowed them to do that.”

Digital technology, he adds, is helping companies persevere through Covid, and will help them adapt successfully in the rolling normal. Top of mind for many businesses is videoconferencing technologies, including Zoom. But companies whose employees were suddenly far-flung have relied more heavily on other existing technologies such as cloud computing and remote collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, which beefed up its videoconferencing capability. “The companies like ours that made the investment in those technologies were prepared when we went to a primarily work-from-home environment,” Kucharski says.

Technologies like Zoom have been around for a while, he adds. “But we’ve never been forced to use them. You’re now able to use them in a way that they were intended, because they’re no longer a ‘nice to have,’ it’s now a key requirement.”

What’s more, many companies are finding that by using these tech tools, “you can actually get things done a lot more efficiently,” he says. Digital collaboration tools, for instance, allow colleagues to easily share documents, artwork, and plans across many teams and locations. Padilla has been using digital platforms to conduct remote business presentations and make pitches across the country. “Since March, every one of our presentations has been remote,” Kucharski says. “And we’ve won a lot of business.”

The capabilities also are changing what customers are demanding. Take restaurants. Those that had web-based ordering and mobile payment in place before Covid-19 “were able to pivot much more quickly to selling more food out of the back of the restaurant than out of the front,” he says.

“There are a lot of businesses that would like to have customers do more self-service over the phone versus zeroing out and talking to a live agent,” Kucharski says. “During Covid, that became a necessity.” Many retailers, he adds, “actually wanted customers to shop before they got to the store. If they’ve improved their online presence and have curbside service, they now have a way to do that.”

Retailers that have relied on the solid foundation of bricks and mortar suddenly found themselves awash in a flood of uncertainty. That’s why when the pandemic hit, Minneapolis-based digital marketing agency Ciceron “found ourselves in the front row,” CEO and founder Andrew Eklund says. As Eklund notes, e-commerce technologies were already available, “but the migration needed to accelerate.” 

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Ciceron has helped many of its retailer clients set up more comprehensive e-commerce operations. This shift, Eklund says, has been crucial “not only to keep the doors open, but also as a potential source of future growth.”

Making connections

E-commerce operations and pandemic restrictions have required many small retailers and other businesses to ship their goods. That need is delivering opportunities for both new and established companies that can offer tech-driven logistics.

In August, third-party logistics provider C.H. Robinson introduced enhancements to its Freightquote shipping platform. Mac Pinkerton, president for North American surface transportation, describes the target market as small businesses that are infrequent shippers, but are feeling pressure to “improve their long-term viability and sustainability.”

Though C.H. Robinson, based in Eden Prairie, may be best known for management of complex global supply chains for large multinationals, it also has been strengthening its offerings to smaller companies to help “walk these customers through a very complex shipping industry,” Pinkerton says. He notes that small shippers can’t access owner-operators and other small carriers, “which is about 80 percent of the available capacity across North America. It would be hard for a small shipper to maintain contractually the obligations of those carriers [and] ensure that they’re safety-compliant.”

The Freightquote platform gives small shippers access to carriers specializing in parcels, less-than-truckload (LTL), and truckloads. It also identifies carriers providing temperature-control capabilities. According to Pinkerton, the platform “asks a couple of easy questions to ensure that their product is protected with the right equipment throughout the journey.”

Freightquote’s backbone, Pinkerton says, is C.H. Robinson’s Navisphere platform, which brings together more than 200,000 transport companies, including LTL trucking and logistics companies such as North Carolina-based Old Dominion Freight Line and parcel providers such as FedEx. Using Navisphere, small shippers can see a parcel, LTL, or truckload option, and then select a more competitive price than what they could get on their own, Pinkerton says.

Another aspect to C.H. Robinson’s new small shipper service is its partnership with San Francisco-based TaskRabbit, an online marketplace that connects consumers with freelance, short-term help with common tasks. Via Freightquote, TaskRabbit “taskers” are available to help infrequent shippers properly package their goods for shipment “so that they arrive the way they were sent out,” Pinkerton says. 

Another service added to Freightquote that’s specifically for small, infrequent shippers is a terminal-to-terminal option. For example, a shipper may typically ship out pallet-sized quantities of its products. “But if your receiving point is in a residential location, that makes it difficult or expensive because a large truck can’t get to that location easily,” Pinkerton notes. Freightquote now lets a shipper deliver the pallet shipment to a local LTL shipping terminal. A TaskRabbit tasker can then help arrange for the shipment to be handled by a shipping service provider that can access the destination location.

Calabrio, a Minneapolis-based contact-center software company, has been helping its clients make and maintain connections to customers. Most of those clients’ employees—including customer service representatives, technical support people, and health care advisors such as nurses—are working from home. “In the world of contact centers, that adds a little wrinkle,” says Calabrio president and CEO Tom Goodmanson. “You still have to take care of your customers. So we’ve been helping our clients get their contact centers mobile.” During the first few months of the pandemic, Calabrio and its clients focused on “making [agents] as productive as they were before they went home,” Goodmanson says.

Calabrio’s software products “were almost perfectly positioned to take care of this,” he says. “The scheduling algorithms were designed to be super-flexible and allow people what we call a ‘split shift.’ ” In the Covid-19 era, contact center agents have been working more complicated schedules than the straight 8 to 5. Instead, he notes, “you might start at 8, then take a break at 11 to teach your kids and have lunch, then come back at 3.”

The company’s services have undergone changes, he says. For instance, Calabrio’s analytics team made itself available for customer questions and software changes they might require as their agents worked from home. Calabrio’s technology suite also includes AI-driven voice-of-the-customer analytics that record and analyze customer interactions with agents.

“The big analytics insight that people were getting was emotional sentiment,” Goodmanson says. “At Calabrio, we talk about the human element of our software.” Because of the pandemic, “people are scared right now,” he adds. “So when they call the brand, they want to connect with it.”

If Calabrio’s analytics tools sense a negative or unhappy response from an agent interaction, the tool can alert the agent’s supervisor. “Our analytics tools allow the people who are supervising—who can’t walk down the hall and talk to people—to understand what went well or what went poorly on a call,” Goodmanson says.

They then can provide additional coaching and training. Calabrio’s AI-driven analytics and its Workforce Engagement Management suite of products are being used by some government-run Covid-19 contact tracing centers, where people making or receiving calls can be rather stressed.

No turning back

E-commerce operations and pandemic restrictions have required many small retailers and other businesses to ship their goods. That need is delivering opportunities for both new and established companies that can offer tech-driven logistics.

Not all businesses have switched to remote and work-from-home operations. “Many of our clients are essential businesses,” says Brad Fick, president of Chanhassen-based Direct Source, which supplies electronic in-store equipment, such as payment devices and interactive kiosks, primarily for big-box and large-chain retailers nationwide. “Prior to the lockdown, we were in communication with them,” strategizing how Direct Source would continue supporting these clients. “They needed the same kind of services, but modified somewhat,” Fick adds.

When stores opened up and customers started to return in limited numbers, Direct Source provided occupancy monitoring to help store associates track the number of customers in the store to maintain appropriate distancing.

Direct Source also supplies thermal temperature scanning technology that alerts retail staff when a customer has an elevated temperature, thus keeping unhealthy shoppers out of the store. It offers sanitizing equipment that automatically and continuously disinfects high-touch areas using UV light.

How long retailers will need to use technologies like these is, of course, impossible to predict. It does seem likely, however, that whenever the economy fully opens up, things won’t be quite the same. “Employees won’t be going back to the same office they went to in January,” Padilla’s Kucharski says. “Customers won’t be going back to the same restaurant or merchant they went to in January.”

And companies of all types and sizes won’t be relying on quite the same set of high-tech tools they were using before Covid-19.

This story appears in the Oct./Nov. 2020 issue with the title “Tech Support.”

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