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What are the 3 mistakes digital strategist make? Interview with Michel Demoor

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I am happy to welcome Michel Demoor, who has been a digital strategy consultant for 15 years, as my next People&Digital podcast guest.

Michel started his career in 2006 when there was no iPhone, no Facebook and no GDPR cookie banner, so he has seen the rising complexity of the digital landscape. 

In 2015 he co-founded Rise+Shine, a marketing automation agency specializing in Selligent and Salesforce. Now he sets up digital strategy programs for pretty traditional & stock listed companies.

Michel says his ambition is “to take digital strategy and data strategy to the boardroom and focus on companies where the management team is committed to investing in digital transformation.” 

Below you will find a summarized, quick-read version of Michel’s interview with my thoughts and questions in bold. However, you can also listen to our full discussion, packed with various additional insights and examples, on episode X of my People&Digital podcast. 

What are the three main mistakes digital strategists make when they start out?

First, let’s clarify the word ‘strategy’

…and what it means to me. Simply, it’s an assessment of the difference between where the company is and its ambitions. Sometimes they need some inspiration; they know why they need to invest in digital, but they are not sure how or what. Here you can propose opportunities that various media and technology offerings can open up to them. Together, you select some priorities and make a plan – including long-term planning – and how this will work across various channels, teams and projects.

So an assessment, followed by planning is essentially what I consider to be digital strategy.

One mistake strategists make is being extremely ambitious, with big plans and big ideas. Strategists need to be micro-ambitious. Set high ambitions but appreciate the small wins as you are changing an existing way of working which will throw up various unexpected hiccups along the way. You need to celebrate every small win to keep the faith and convince the people around the table that each small win feeds into the bigger picture and larger win. 

Belgian companies don’t have the same scale as American companies like Amazon, Apple and Netflix, so you need to be down-to-earth, pragmatic and relevant to the Belgian way of working. It’s fine to be inspired by these companies but it’s important to take into account the reality of your situation. Don’t try to copy the American way of doing things.

We need to be humble in our process as we are on our way, but we are not there yet.

I’ve worked with PowerPoint for over half my life and yet the only slide that people print or share is the one in Excel. So, I advise using a spreadsheet to start your strategy. Think like a CFO as everything that is presented as numbers will resonate a lot more with top management. Decision-makers want to see and discuss spreadsheets, not fancy slides. It doesn’t need to be a big spreadsheet, it can be simple, it just has to show how the numbers relate to each other and how you get to your end goal. Excel makes you ask the right questions from the start and brings tangible elements to your strategy before you broaden out into using slides as well as Excel sheets.

In summary 3 key advices:

  1. Appreciate every small win; be micro-ambitious;
  2. Be relevant and pragmatic in your approach; tailor it to the company you are working for rather than trying to copy what the US is doing;
  3. Start your strategy with numbers in a spreadsheet.

There can be a struggle in the space between strategy and execution which results in frustration.

Why is making the leap from strategy to execution so complicated?

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action with without vision is a nightmare.” —  Japanese proverb

Strategy without execution is worthless. The first thing is that the digital planner is a separate person to the project manager. So a different person conceptualizes the idea – the why – and someone else follows up and executes. Project managers tend to get things done fast; they have a style of tackling projects on time and within budget, without asking too many questions. In contrast, a strategist is typically very slow; they question and challenge everything, turning everything around. This is very different to the pragmatic approach of the project manager, so there needs to be a good alignment between these two profiles. The strategist needs to be able to think like a project manager and vice versa. Although I don’t see it happening a lot, the project manager needs to be able to tell the strategist when they notice there is something that will not work – this feedback loop between the two should be a priority. It’s something many agencies can improve upon so that each role meets in the middle.

Strategies are settled, then they are executed and they are not revisited, in my experience, so we do need to build this bridge.

It’s very important to plan up front to have a strategy review every three months, for example, and set aside time to do this. These iterations are important. I like the phrase ‘strategy prototyping’, so that the strategy is never set in stone – you plan to re-plan every three months based on feedback from the market, the teams… I don’t believe in setting a strategy in place for two or three years at a time any more.

Clearly, strategists having the opportunity to collaborate with project management every three months makes sense. It should be made a new, powerful habit.

It won’t happen unless you plan for it – again, plan to re-plan. Strategy means that you build a roadmap including risk, including uncertainty, so you can’t then be blind to the barriers and things that don’t work. Embrace the nuances and trust the process.

It would be very helpful to re-evaluate based on feedback every three months because areas that can be improved or where things just don’t work become clear and project managers are already overwhelmed so this collaboration would allow issues to be dealt with quickly.

This communication may not be easy but it is definitely necessary.

Do you think digital strategy is enough?

When is a good time to start a CX strategy, for example?

I think there are a lot of different types of strategy – design strategy, UX strategy etc. For me, no matter the expertise, each time you start from an “as is” situation and you plan long term towards a “to be” situation making critical impact to your business, you are strategically planning. So for customer experience strategy, say one day you say “I have a customer experience today that I don’t want anymore”, it needs to change because it’s not good so you create a plan to change this, so if you ask me when is a good time to think about this, choosing to provide a better customer experience is the first decision you should make. 

There’s a theory there are three essential things you can concentrate on as a company: operational efficiency, customer intimacy and product innovation. When I think of CX, I think of investing in customer intimacy and those are typically the companies that invest the time in people to provide a better service. 

There are examples of companies where the focus is not on customer experience – where this is actually a negative experience – but because the service or product is efficient and cheap, it still feels ok. Think IKEA and RyanAir.

The level of personalization for customers is what can increase customer intimacy in instances like these. 

This is a great way of integrating CX with digital strategy, but CX strategy should last. How do you integrate CX into your strategy? Is CX compatible with strategies such as cost-cutting or product innovation?

I agree, the choice is rooted in your company DNA; it’s not ad hoc, you invest for the long-term. You start with small ideas, small projects to provide more personalized experiences, then you try to expand on this. But also you learn that some personalizations are not actually valued by the market. You could also have an idea of a company that’s trying to do customer experience as their main focus but in that industry it might not work if everybody is looking at the cost. For instance, a bank is much better suited to concentrating on customer experience than an energy company. It’s really hard to make a USP out of experiences.

I’m sure everybody working for a commodity, service or product is facing the same challenge. Especially compared to the big US CX success stories. It’s hard to tap into the emotion, except the emotion of satisfaction – something done quickly and easily, as well as being cost-effective and not inconveniencing the customer. 

It’s easier to add experiences as a unique selling proposition to certain industries, and harder for others, such as commodities. It’s very industry-dependent whether an experience will work or not; some industries are more open. Luckily, most industries involve emotions and most consumers are emotional buyers. 

You don’t have to create a USP for that, you just need to make the process faster, easier… make it what your customer really wants. This way you will get less churn and you don’t have to focus on selling customer experience; you sell solutions and provide an efficient user experience. 

It’s like project management – it’s a method, it’s something you choose to invest in and it’s a long road to get to the point where you are labelled as a customer award-winning company. 

Patience and long-term vision is key

To round up,

tell me your thoughts: what are the three key things managers always forget when building a strategy?

  1. They always forget that there are a lot of different skills, and a lot of different types of people around the table. People think that all those who work in digital speak the same language, which is not the case. There are many different types of people and many different languages within digital so it’s vital to have someone who translates, communicates and gets everyone pointing in the same direction. I think this is a role for project managers and strategists to take up together – creating enough time for all the people around the table. 
  1. If it’s not a priority to digitalize or perform in the digital space, you won’t get there. It takes a lot of effort.
  1. Be micro-ambitious. As a results-driven manager, take the time to evaluate what you are doing. Even when projects have been paused and you’ve had good feedback, go back to the results to see how it actually performed. See where you could invest to improve further because digital projects are never finished, they are a constant work in progress. We need to have moments of KPI evaluation every three months to see how everything is going, even though it will mostly be painful! There are always barriers you didn’t see coming, but this ongoing process is what makes you a winner, not having the perfect plan from the start. It’s the small improvements and everyday wins that make a good strategy.

Thank you, Michel, I agree. This was really interesting and thank you for coming on People&Digital as your first ever podcast!

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