It’s been incredible to watch how quickly businesses have adapted in the last couple of months due to COVID-19.
While high-profile auto brands Ford and GM are manufacturing ventilators for hospitals across the globe, South Australian businesses are driving community-focused innovations, too. Gin maker Prohibition Liquor Co is using its high-strength alcohol to make hand sanitiser, and sustainable packaging giant Detmold Group is leveraging its facilities to produce millions of face masks.
On an unprecedented scale, we’re seeing businesses transform their service delivery, moving most, if not all, customer-facing interactions online to support needs which were once managed almost exclusively face-to-face.
Suddenly, it’s possible to book a video consultation with your doctor or physio, have your local fruit and veg store deliver to your door and attend your gym classes over Zoom.
As we slowly transition back to normality, it will be interesting to see whether these initiatives will be temporary or a significant permanent element of these businesses in the future. The key is to ensure online product and service offerings are still appealing when customers are presented with more choices.
The University of South Australia launched UniSA Online in 2017, offering 100 per cent online degrees with course content designed for online delivery and taught over extended hours.
The work that went into the design of UniSA Online, and what we have learned over the last couple of years may be helpful for other businesses looking to grow an online channel.
UniSA Online academics Tarosh Jacob, Kim Burley and Dr Huda Khan.
Know your market
Nothing beats a deep understanding of your customers, their preferences and pain points.
By delivering online, you might even discover that you’ve attracted a completely new target market, one you otherwise may not have reached.
In our case, most of our students are in their mid-20s to mid-40s, looking to change careers or gain a promotion. Many are juggling work and family commitments, and many others live regionally, making travel to a physical campus unrealistic.
We knew from the very start that we were talking to a completely different audience to the traditional high-school leaver cohort who prefer to study on campus and we ensured that the 20 full degrees and more than 200 single courses offered online reflected this reality.
Students who have taken up online education since the dramatic impact of COVID-19 are driven by different motivations. Some have found more hours in their day for study as they’re working from home and no longer commuting, some have lost their jobs or had their hours significantly reduced and are now looking to retrain in new sectors.
It’s critical to invest in understanding your target market, including what motivates them, what appeals to them and how they like to be communicated with.
At the end of the day, having these deep insights is your competitive advantage and the key to delivering a tailored, high-quality experience that will differentiate you in the long run.
Rethink the customer experience
Trying to replicate the face-to-face experience in a virtual environment simply won’t work and will fall short of expectations.
There are some significant advantages of delivering online that can be leveraged to provide an enhanced and innovative service.
In our case, some examples included implementing software to facilitate exams online, and replacing the traditional lecture with shorter videos on key topics that students can pause, rewind and interact with in order to get their heads around key topics.
UniSA Online also worked hard to ensure that online students weren’t disadvantaged compared to on-campus students, so new digital channels were introduced to ensure our online students have full access to library resources, counselling and career advice.
Being online also doesn’t make you any less real, so taking every opportunity to form personal connections is critical. Our students receive a welcome call from one of our Student Advisors who walk them through the enrolment process and make them aware of all the services and supports available to them. When they commence study, our Academic staff and Student Support team are able to monitor student engagement through learning analytics to proactively engage with students to support their studies.
Knowing that the traditional on-campus timetable wasn’t going to suit our busy students, we also offered extended operating hours every weeknight and over weekends.
These services went a long way in helping UniSA Online achieve student satisfaction ratings of 90 per cent or above in the areas of teaching quality, student support and learning resources in the 2019 QILT survey, the most comprehensive survey of higher education students in Australia.
In the long term, the pandemic is likely to change customer preferences, workforce expectations, business models and, in some cases, whole industries. So, as the world begins to transition back to what will undoubtedly be a “new normal”, businesses need to ensure their online value proposition is strong.
In doing so they will emerge from these extraordinary times having strengthened their relationships with their customers as well as developed new and innovative ways to position themselves for long-term success.
Tom Steer is the Executive Director of UniSA Online and was named one of South Australia’s Top 40 Business Leaders under the age of 40, in the 2019 InDaily 40 Under 40 Awards.