Competitive advantage through better digital delivery. It ain’t what you do....


Customer expectations are changing. We all know that right? But the Amazon ‘everything now’-centric model has not only changed the way that we shop as consumers but crucially how we behave as organisations. Every product and service is now considered a fast-moving consumer good. We want what we want and we want it now, or tomorrow at the very very latest.

Brands are now publishers, publishers are now brands and everyone is on the Big 4 - Google, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn (sorry Insta!). B2B and B2C models are blurring, manufacturers are going direct, everything’s meta and everything matters.

On top of this unquenchable thirst sit the new channels, the devices, the screen sizes, the augmented reality and the latest virtual worlds. New day, new pivot. Fortnite, a game aimed at tweens, is now holding ‘live’ concerts with popular performers and people are paying to be there. Airbnb is serving up experiences ahead of rentals and TikTok headlines have switched from entertainment to espionage.

Customer-centricity and loyalty remain the words of the day because consumers simply love brands for their experiences and convenience. Make it authentic, aligned to their values and easy to access and price becomes rapidly less relevant. The powerhouse brands continue to lead the way. Amazon strives to be the “world’s most customer-centric business” and succeed at most innovative. From Apple to Nike to Tiffany’s; they’re banking on the feeling that being connected to a brand matters most, especially at a time when normal connections and traditional touchpoints are fettered.

The move to digital over the past quarter-century has matured. Legal compliance, data protection and data privacy are no longer things to fear. Simply caring about your customers and contacts is no longer enough, you have to protect them and their data. From consumer laws, regulations and new digital specific acts, through to cookie policies and GDPR practices that we all need to adopt, there is a never-ending need to keep up with the demands of an ever-increasing digital powered world.

Keeping up with the Jones’

On what sometimes feels like a digital hamster wheel, how do you, as a brand, as an organisation, make sure that you are keeping up and putting your customer front and centre of everything you do? How do you keep finding and building those connections? Let alone keeping track of fresh compliance, channels and technologies?

The answer differs for every brand but it always starts with knowing your customer. Knowing who they are, where they are and how they feel and think will get you halfway. There are a million blog posts, tweets and articles about the art of knowing your customer so let's not dwell on what you do, but focus on the way that you do it.

I initially resisted using the oft-quoted Bananarama/Fun Boy Three classic in the title of this piece - “it ain’t what you do but it’s the way that you do it...” - but I believe it to be a central truth in digital these days (plus I love 80s music). If asked to describe the ideal customer, I’d say that 99.9% of brands could give me granular details including why they love you. The issue for most brands, therefore, isn’t really about knowing your audience, it’s about how you service them.

The point of the introduction to this article was to highlight that digital moves fast and consumers move fast with it - and that’s true in B2C and B2B. The challenge then of the marketing team today is to make sure that you’re ahead of the next move - focused, agile and connected. In the past 5 years alone almost every business owner, marketing director, IT manager or communications exec has worried about one or all of the following: personalisation, cross channel experience, chatbots, voice services, metasearch, SEO, remarketing, retargeting, CRO - and if you haven’t, then you probably should have.

Most often brands don’t have the ability to react to any of these demands quickly enough, let alone all of them. Opportunities like ‘personalisation’ keep being the top of every marketers ‘things I’d like to focus on but never quite get round to’ and that’s been the case since before Voice, ChatBots and AI started adding to the list of concerns. This reiterates the point, it’s not about whether you can keep up with the latest channels, experiences or CX fashions, you probably can’t. It is about how quickly you can focus, prioritise and deliver the ones that matter most.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Mohammed Ali, one of the best brand experience creators of the 20th century, lived by this mantra. This is how he won. His competitive advantage was his speed, agility and impact. In digital today it’s no different. If you want to drive competitive advantage then you need to be fast to market, agile in your approach and have an impact - creating those meaningful experiences that customers crave and bond them to your brand. The opportunity is the one you have in hand. Right now. If you’re thinking about ‘your next project’, you’re already beaten - ‘next project thinking’ is now too slow, too constrained and often too political.

The change then has to come from changing how you do what you do, and this leads us momentarily into the broad and now somewhat passe topic of digital transformation.

Digital transformation is often banded around in the context of customer experience and being customer first. It isn’t this. Sometimes it's seen as upgrading the tech stack or migrating to ‘the cloud’. It isn’t this either. It’s also absolutely not about your next website! Digital transformation is a holistic change in mindset and approach to put digital thinking into the heart of your organisation. It’s all the things mentioned above, plus constant innovation and the use of technology to facilitate organisational maturity and achieve your goals.

Your business’s objectives probably haven’t changed too much over the past few decades - make more money or grow market share, being two such examples. Consequently, digital transformation doesn’t change the end game objectives, it just means that you’re going to change the way that you achieve them.

Driving competitive advantage through speed, agility and impact

If we return to our need to provide better customer experiences in an agile, fast and impactful way, then the difference between the winners and losers will likely be how you choose to deliver these experiences. To many, this means changing the way that you work but let’s hold fire on using the transformation word again as there is a better way.

Fifteen years ago the traditional digital delivery model saw IT Managers or Marketing Managers buying tech products like websites and mobile apps, or channel specialist consultancy services such as SEO or paid search and social. These were procured from a combination of platform vendors and agency suppliers/ partners. Then, as techniques became more established, some brands took these things in-house and did them themselves. The two models are both perfectly adequate and operate substantially across most businesses today.

However, both of these models are fundamentally flawed. Buying projects and services lead to ‘next project’ lag, whereby the next one stalls as the current one falters. At a programme scale in big business, this can be catastrophic. Quality and consistency suffer as either the partners are paraded and swapped or simply because the team members from your last project are no longer available for the next one. Precious time is lost negotiating over scope and budgets and nobody benefits, least of all the brand’s customer.

The full in-house model is, by comparison, more cost-effective on the surface but can often stall and hinder progress as the day to day ‘BAU’ takes over and pure innovation and digital wins become incremental at best. New ideas are not being infused from outside and you lose sight of the forest, for all the darn trees. Eventually when the digital skills market shifts again you can be left with the wrong flavour experts on your payroll.

In order to have the speed, agility and impact what you really need now is a combination of the two and this is where team augmentation comes in.

Team augmentation: diversity delivers

If you take the very best bits of the two traditional models and create the ultimate mash-up you can remain porous to new ideas whilst having access to a range of specialists, experts and a depth of knowledge that only the very largest in-house teams could compete with. By contrast, you’ll also be matching this with stability, consistency and economies of scale that only comes from placing a six-figure account at the biggest of networked agencies.

This is the multiplier effect. You get the best from each counter-approach because of the very problems these service models were designed to tackle.

An augmented team is ‘always on’ by default and so can deliver multiple projects and BAU at the same time.
It’s built from a combination of in-house people who love the business, live the brand and understand its audiences, nuances and points of difference - aligned with a group of agency specialists who bring horizontal innovation, different perspectives and technical expertise.

It’s in-housing with skills diversity guaranteed and its combined punch of business domain knowledge and creative technical expertise, connected to a network of similar experts and other brand experience stories, make it the ‘must-have’ delivery model of tomorrow. Step back and imagine a team like this in your business and what can be achieved?

What it is not

What I’m describing is not the same as bolstering an in-house team with contractors. Contractors are great for filling short term gaps in expertise - but only where you literally need it one day and not at all the next. The difference between an agency retained person, through augmentation, and a contractor is the support that the agency people bring. They are managed, evaluated constantly and part of a bigger specialist team. Agency people are likely to have genuine access to a broader set of specialist skills and people. They also have a single-mindedness - one obsessed with objectives and focused on providing value - which would likely be too narrow for an internal hire. In short, they are accountable, capable and highly motivated. Now, I’m not saying contractors don’t have the raw ingredients but let’s be clear, they do not account to any higher power or larger organisation than themselves.

What it definitely is

Augmented teams bring agility, there is no ‘project scope’ attached and so can work in a truly agile way - in both the figurative and literal sense. They can shift focus for an hour, a day, a week and then keep chipping away at larger projects. In short, they let you pivot the delivery of digital as your customer demands change - and that’s both internal and external customers. Augmented teams bring speed. They do this through consistency, knowledge and a deep understanding of the business. The biggest weakness of the ‘project by project’ approaches are changes in personnel. No one likes to pay for the on-boarding of a new team member in time or money. It increases the duplication of learning and effort plus risks quality in the short term. An augmented team overcomes this as all team members are retained and so have the knowledge of each other, the business and the project portfolio to deliver consistently and effectively. Release cycles of features, content or functionality can be daily, weekly or built around ‘10 day sprints’ and rarely do you have the ‘whack-a-mole’ antics of a new deployment breaking an old one.

Why is this idea so important now?
In the new age of the customer with the brand wars being fought on the digital battleground, speed to market is of the essence. Get their first and fail forwards are the new mantras of the digital world and only the augmented team, the mix of in-house domain knowledge and external experts can get you there quickest. Hands down it's no longer a fair race.

This new delivery model has an impact. The team’s deeper understanding of the business and its customers means the products are better. The ‘in-housed’ agency team knows the business as well as the internal team and are likely to serve similar lengths of tenure. The differentiator is that they come connected to an agency and our meritocracy continues to be a breeding ground of emerging expertise in creative, customer experience, technology and engineering - all of which are on tap, as you’d expect through any traditional agency model.

Finally, this approach has longevity and legacy built-in. Scaling up and down is achievable as there are domain experts from the business and the specialist side (e.g. technology or channel) both to hand, allowing new people to be inducted, trained and coached on an ongoing basis. In short, the team persists and so the knowledge stays in the business and the business stays in the team.

Who’s doing this currently?

Following on 2019’s trend for in-housing against the backdrop of Covid and the newer focus on controlling spending whilst maximising impact, a great many organisations are now looking at this model. Here at Sagittarius, 50% of our client base is no longer buying projects but are signed up for team augmentation contracts and this is allowing them to maximise their digital output and drive the performance that they are looking for.

Jacksons Fencing has seen revenues double and sessions increase threefold whilst working this way, allowing them to hold their ground in search against B&Q, Wickes and Homebase (search ‘garden fencing’ to see for yourself) showing that by being agile, impactful and fastest to market proves the underdog can win with significantly fewer resources at its disposal. There are others too, including YPO, Sunrise and L&Q who are also achieving great things through new quick to market, fail fast, digital services including websites, app, microservices and on-premise touchpoints - all delivered by a blended team of brand-side experts and Sagittarius technology and CX professionals, working together over a number of years and not just a number of projects.

Competitive advantage is... in the way that you do it.

Coming full circle back to where I kicked this off, the digital team of today needs to deliver fast and deliver well. We know customers want experiences and we know that brands strive to deliver impact and craft meaningful conversations instead of just driving a crowd to your digital destinations.

The evolution to becoming even more customer-centric is not just about what you do but very much about how you do it. Don’t let 2020 pass you by without planning what your augmented team could look like. Seize the competitive advantage by being quick to market, agile in your approach and increase your impact on customers in the marketplace.

If you would like to talk to Sagittarius about how your brand can succeed in digital and enable business transformation faster and with more efficiency, please get in touch, we would love to talk to you!

Nick Towers
Nick Towers
Co-Founder & executive director
Co-Founder and self-confessed massive geek, Nick has been in digital since graduating from law and moving into technology many years ago. Through a combination of building awesome client relationships, crafting a formidable team of digital experts and consistently delivering results for our clients Nick has taken Sagittarius from being a successful small agency to the global digital customer experience consultancy and Sitecore powerhouse that it is today.
Nick Towers

Nick Towers

05 Aug 2020 - 10 minute read
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