Behind the Screens: Aligning Operations And Digital Tools

Behind the ScreensIn The Wizard of Oz, the Great and Powerful Oz ended up being an illusion controlled by Professor Marvel, a skilled performer hidden behind a curtain. Similarly, many exceptional digital experiences come from the expertise and coordination of offline functions. This is especially true any time digital experiences provide an entryway to something non-digital, whether it’s retail (all things shopping), health care delivery (online pharmacies, remote medical consultation, and the like), or real-world magic (the Disney park experience). What does it take behind the curtain to make a great digital experience happen?

It’s fairly obvious in many cases that a digital tool has offline support needs. We all realize that someone at Amazon retrieves our products from a physical warehouse, puts them in a physical box, and ships them to us through a physical service. What I didn’t realize until fairly recently was that the offline support considerations for many digital products go much deeper. It’s not just about having products in the warehouse; it’s about having the right mix of products at the right time, a mechanism in place for identifying and retrieving them, and a way to keep records up-to-date so customers always know what to expect. Beyond the supply chain, you’ve also got to think about billing, customer support, legal liabilities, and clinical consideration (if you are in the health space). A digital solution can sometimes be like a plant with incredibly deep, complicated root systems. You may notice the beautiful leaves and flowers without realizing that the true source of its hardiness is tangled beneath the earth.

Think of your operations partners as the man behind the curtain
Think of your operations partners as the man behind the curtain

Your offline considerations may include:

Fulfillment channels need to be in place, with two-way communication. Any orders submitted online need to be efficiently transmitted to the people who will actually supply the items to the customer. At the same time, the customer should be able to see during the purchase experience whether an item is in stock, if there are any anticipated delivery delays, etc. This means that the front-end digital system and the back-end fulfillment system need two-way communication. This may guide the choice of technology or customer-facing features (or may prompt upgrades or changes on the back end).

Not only can I place an order, I can see how many more are in stock = 2 way communication
Not only can I place an order, I can see how many more are in stock = 2 way communication

Billing and financial support need to be established. Similar to fulfillment channels, it’s vital that customers using the front end be able to navigate any payment or financial issues associated with a service. A colleague of mine once told me that when he ran his own business, the number one cause for customer support calls was billing difficulty. This becomes a cost drain for a business and a source of frustration for users. Ideally, a digital product enables all of the money magic to take place on the screen. If it can’t, at least set clear user expectations for how to handle all things money.

It goes beyond just allowing people to make payments online, although that is part of it. For businesses like Amazon, there’s the need to uphold the sales tax statutes based on where the customer lives. For businesses that accept insurance of any kind, there’s the need to calculate what is owed by the customer and what is paid by the insurance. There are also issues like gift cards, return credits, and promo codes.

Customer service support should be available and prepared. This is more than just having people available to respond to customers; they should also be educated in the customer digital experience so that they can understand issues that arise. Any changes to the digital environment need to be communicated throughout the customer support organization so that they are prepared to respond to inquiries and help troubleshoot as needed (and, on the positive side, help evangelize when new capabilities become available).

For pharmacies, remote care consultants, and businesses dealing with medical affairs, clinical oversight may be required. Mechanisms should be in place to ensure customer safety as appropriate.  Some medications have FDA requirements that pharmacies ask about certain side effects before filling a prescription, for example. Ideally, companies are also able to detect issues such as two items in an order that interact and then intervene with live support to ensure patient safety. Any time we are offering medical advice or vending medical products, we have an extra responsibility to make sure that the digital experience upholds standards of care.

Any legal, regulatory, or compliance guidelines should be triple-checked against the digital offering. Depending on what industry a company operates, it may be subject to guidelines from varying agencies and accrediting bodies. If an organization accepts Medicare or Medicaid for payment, then they become subject to CMS guidelines, for example. If a company’s disease management intervention is NCQA-certified, updates need to be consistent with NCQA standards. Or, perhaps your e-commerce site has a trust seal; these too come with requirements to maintain. Often these sorts of guidelines fall outside the day-to-day considerations of digital teams, so it’s incredibly important to involve operational colleagues early in the design process in case these guidelines will impact the digital product.

Have something like this? Make sure you know what it takes to maintain your accreditations and seals.
Have something like this? Make sure you know what it takes to maintain your accreditations and seals.

What’s your point? I almost hope people reading this are saying, “Yeah, yeah, this is obvious.” But unfortunately I’ve seen instances where digital teams have a perspective that if they build a tool, they can plunk it into an ecosystem and just have it start working. For big, complex organizations, it’s often critical to think through the most minute details of how a transaction is completed with the largest possible cross-section of stakeholders. The big stuff is obvious, but it’s the tiny stuff that gets missed and means needing to redesign or even scrap a project after investing tons of time and money.

Best practices to align the online and offline include:

Socialize your digital work early and deeply.Tell your colleagues whose roles support your digital products what you’re thinking of working on before it even becomes real. Ask for their feedback on the idea. Will this digital tool smooth any bumps in their processes? Create some? Are there issues that seem to really bother them? Probe on it. It could be a red flag that you need to consider in your design.

Clarify the problem you’re trying to solve. There’s a balance to be struck between surfacing and addressing critical operational issues, and bringing too many cooks into the kitchen. If your digital tool is designed to collect email addresses for an ongoing newsletter, there’s no need to involve your billing department right now (although socializing the concept is still cool, since who knows where the next great idea may come from?). If, on the other hand, you want to set up one-click ordering from within an email, you better get those finance folks involved stat.

It makes sense to get partners' help in understanding dense guidelines and policies, like these from CMS for hospital billing.
It makes sense to get partners’ help in understanding dense guidelines and policies, like these from CMS for hospital billing.

Write out the “must-dos”. This is a step past clarifying your main problem. Now you’re documenting all of the other “rules.” And these “rules” should come from stakeholders across the organization. As the must-do list grows deeper and longer, you will begin to understand how stakeholder needs converge.

Be curious and ask questions. If you work in a large multi-department company (or have one as a client), ask people about their jobs even if you don’t think it matters for your project or role. First, this is a nice thing to do and will help you make friends. Second, it will help you understand the business context in greater detail so that as you think about digital design, you’re better positioned to seek out stakeholders whose feedback might influence your decisions.

Be broad rather than narrow in talking to stakeholders. If it turns out your project has no implication for the finance department, then at worst you’ve wasted a few hours in conversation. If it turns out your project has the potential to create tax issues and you never had that conversation with finance, that’s not so easy to recover from. Better safe than sorry.

Be prepared to explore non-digital solutions. Not every problem has a digital solution. If creating a digital tool to handle a process costs more than the value it returns, it may not be worth pursuing. Sometimes great ideas come at the wrong time, or an idea just doesn’t fit a burning need.

Don’t Be Like the Wizard of Oz

Professor Marvel didn’t want anyone to know about the man behind the curtain controlling the Great and Powerful Oz. Your goal is not to obscure the offline functions that make your digital product successful, but rather to bring them into the process early as stakeholders and make your product a way for their work to shine. It’s about delivering the best customer experience that meets as many stakeholder requirements as it possibly can. Don’t be like Professor Marvel, trying to hide the messy truth behind a screen. Think of your digital tool as a different type of screen, a movie screen where the complex operational workings that make customer experience great can have their moment to shine.