By The Business Journals Content Studio  |  Buffalo Business First  |  Thu, 17 Jun 2021 4:42 PM EDT

Tech talk: Buffalo execs discuss how the acceleration of digital footprints is changing customer expectations

Matt Brown, Urban Haas and Doug McDonald

Panelists included (from left to right) Matt Brown, executive program director, NetApp; Urban Haas, executive technology strategist, CDW; and Doug McDonald, director of technology, Extreme Networks.

If your company was merely technology savvy before Covid-19, the crisis likely thrust it toward a full-on digital transformation. That shift required agility and flexibility to manage remote workforces and meet changing customer and vendor demands in a world where digital interactions are now the norm.

While there were benefits that came with these changes, the pivot came with plenty of challenges for information technology departments, including increased demand for user support, a heightened risk for cyberattacks and the need to establish and maintain of remote business processes. While the pandemic is easing in the U.S. with the ongoing rollout of vaccines, technology providers and IT professionals still are at the forefront of organizational plans as companies consider how they’ll operate in the future, including hybrid work models.

Technology executives in the Buffalo region recently discussed the impact of the pandemic on their digital footprints, the innovations that emerged during the crisis and plans for the future at a virtual event — “The Competitive Edge: How companies are using technology to meet the evolving demand for customers.” The event was hosted by Buffalo Busines First and sponsored by CDW, a global provider of technology products and services for business, government and education.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The panelists were:

  • Matt Brown, executive program director, NetApp.
  • Urban Haas, executive technology strategist, CDW.
  • Doug McDonald, director of technology, Extreme Networks.

Participants in the conversation were Sonny Sonnenstein, CIO of consumer, business and digital banking, M&T Bank; Stephen Cross, vice president of IT, Merchants Insurance Group; Kathleen Krieger-Erbes, CIO, Hodgson Russ LLP; David Powers Jr., IT director, Phillips Lytle LLP; Shaun Smith, CIO, Benderson Development Co.; Pete Balisteri, vice president of IT, AAA of Central and Western New York; Jeffrey Crimmins, CIO, Freed Maxick CPAs; and Matt Egyhazy, CIO of commercial, credit and wealth institutions services, M&T Bank.

Participants in the Tech Connect virtual discussion event

Participants in the “Tech Connect” virtual discussion event, sponsored by CDW and presented by Buffalo Business First, explored the topics of hybrid work models and changing digital footprints.

Returning to in-person interactions

As the economy reopens, scalability is key, said Brown at NetApp. Employees need access to tools that will allow them to support customers who are demanding immediate service.

“Customers want service and they want it on demand, or they’re going to go somewhere else,” Brown said. “Those are the trends to be concerned with. That’s the culture we live in now.”

McDonald, from Extreme Networks, agreed that the focus needs to be on the customer. Take, for example, an airport kiosk with screening capabilities that can deliver a temperature check while also examining a traveler’s heart rate and respiration rate to get an accurate depiction of the person’s health in a touchless manner. Deployed in a work setting, that technology gives a red-light/green-light response that gets people back to the office safely and effectively.
Customers have been receptive when introduced to new tech possibilities like this as long as it is secure and meets privacy standards, McDonald said.

While in-person interactions will become more frequent, Haas, with CDW, predicts some effects of the pandemic will linger, including supply chain shortfalls and labor shortages. Tech companies will continue to be a resource to augment staff, monitor data and help businesses plan for problems before they arise.

Meeting customer needs

Brown said there are several aspects to meeting and ideally exceeding customer demands: security, reliability, resiliency and response.

“Customers to know what the solution is and how they can get it,” he said. They want it on demand. All those things require automation and a multi-public cloud. Companies need to provide data as quickly as possible and get it into the executives’ hands or customers’ hands to help them manage their data in their own IT space. I think these needs have always been there, but the pandemic accelerated it quite a bit. People want things as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”

To get the right fit of IT services to a customer, a tech company such as NetApp relies on an internal IT specialist, who has a more intimate view of what the company needs, so the tech company can take a more proactive approach to meeting those needs.

When it comes to external customers, NetApp relies on its partnerships with CDW and others to be able to understand business needs and tailor services based on the industry, Brown said.
“It also is understanding the changing business landscapes,” Brown said. “Automation is key, and understanding how to deliver fast, cheap, reliable, secure services, whether internal or external, is important to all of our customers.”

Impact of Wi-Fi 6

The next generation of high-speed internet, called Wi-Fi 6, will impact nearly all industries. Health care, for example, will benefit from 3-D and 4-D images augmented in virtual reality, McDonald said.

“Imagine [having] the bandwidth to have an immersive experience where we all come into [a virtual] room and we’re looking at each other, and we could share a beverage afterwards and have a conversation that’s more like in-person,” McDonald said. “The bandwidth and spectrum capacity will allow us to do some of these things.”

The countries that already are taking advantage of the increased capacity of Wi-Fi 6 are using drones to assist first responders, and doctors are doing surgeries remotely, for example.

Gaining internal buy-in

There are two important steps to get company stakeholders to accept digital change: Give them a seat at the table early on and start with small projects, Haas said.

“We often don’t see people jump in headfirst into large transformational projects,” Haas said. “Often we try to lower the risk profile that’s involved with the company. We start with a minimal viable product or proof of value, so we can get small, quick wins. From there, we can expand as the team that’s involved with that gains maturity and they get lessons learned from what worked and what didn’t work.”
Tech hubs of the future

The newly finished tech hub at Seneca One Tower has 13 floors of ultra-modern space where 1,500 technologists will work. There are no offices but spaces for desks and spaces to “communicate, collaborate and collide,” M&T’s Sonnenstein said. It is intended that the technologists will work in small teams to build products that will bring about value-added customer experiences.

The closeness provided by the tech hub will facilitate and amplify the creative process, Egyhazy, of M&T, said.

“It doesn’t mean that people have to be in the office every day,” he said. “It does mean that there are certain creative activities that necessitate the closeness of being in person and working through challenging problems together.”

Keeping connected: lawyers

At Phillips Lytle LLP, the onset of the pandemic caused familiar challenges to the technology team that had to work with attorneys and staff spanning four generations with varying comfort levels with technology, Powers said.

“It causes quite an issue when we try to roll out things to the firm,” he said.

The firm had virtualized its data center prior to the pandemic, so the next steps were to deploy more servers for the applications that needed to be deployed remotely and to get laptops to all attorneys. The move to remote work was done quickly, which allowed the firm to continue functioning, Powers said. He predicts a more “paper-light” operation into the future as the attorneys become more comfortable with digital processes.
At Hodgson Russ, all attorneys had been outfitted with Microsoft Surface laptops, which were extended to staff in the fall.

“Everyone was able to pivot and be an agile work member,” Krieger-Erbes said. “The firm is supportive to make sure everyone had what they need to service their clients.”

If there is a positive that emerged from the pandemic, it is the acceleration of technology adoption and digital transformation, she said.

“It pushed forward the idea that people can work from home,” she said. “Even though we had standardized equipment already, moving to a laptop environment has helped a lot.”

Keeping connected: accountants

Crimmins said when the pandemic hit, Freed Maxick had deployed technologies that were mobile-first and cloud-leaning. The firm first looked at whether its technology capabilities were strong enough to allow the remote transition. It then pivoted to seek opportunities it could achieve from the situation.

The firm realized a newfound ability to both hire and target new clients from outside the region because the systems and platforms were able to support those functions.

“It’s not that it was perfect, and there weren’t things we would do over again,” Crimmins said, “but it really presented unique opportunities to let technology drive the firm forward.”

Keeping connected: insurers

Merchants Insurance engaged its business continuity plan at the start of the pandemic, which involved deploying equipment, converting half of the company to laptops and working through the challenges of home internet connections. To ensure security, Cross said Merchants ramped up training around issues like phishing scams and crypto viruses and kept regular contact with remote workers.
Cross agreed with Krieger-Erbes that the pandemic proved that even the most reluctant worker can adapt to technology.

“For a lot of people who thought they couldn’t be as effective at home as they are in the office, the pandemic forced them to experience it and try it and some non-believers have been converted,” Cross said.

Post-pandemic strategies

For road service organization AAA, the pandemic changed consumer expectations about how to interact with the organization, Balisteri said.

“That has forced us to take a hard look at our own digital strategy and how we need to accelerate investment in certain areas, especially in customer experience,” he said. “That’s a huge thing for our membership and for our policyholders.”

The strategy will have two significant components: getting employees to work in new ways, and delivering viable products and services that meet customer needs and have the agility to change, if necessary, Balisteri said.

That’s AAA’s focus, but digital transformation is going to be different for each organization undertaking it, he said. To be effective, an organization needs to understand what their own digital ambition is.

“We’re not trying to be Carvana or Uber; we are trying to provide a much better experience for those members and stakeholders that are in our wheelhouse today,” he said.

That will require establishing key performance indicators specific to the service or product offered to understand whether the organization is getting the intended results from its digital efforts.
At real estate development company Benderson, a project to replace the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system was about to begin when the pandemic started, Smith said. The 70-year-old company quickly turned into a tech company, he said.

Once Benderson got its infrastructure issues squared away, Smith said he was able to move forward on several initiatives: converting the ERP to a cloud-based system, retiring phone systems, upgrading computers, rolling out new network gear, destroying the multiprotocol label switching network and going to a site-to-site virtual private network.

“All those things happened because the pandemic happened,” Smith said. “The pandemic made us leapfrog in a year what traditionally would take companies many years to do.”

Crisis resiliency

M&T also made quick work of moving 13,000 employees to remote work while dealing with a significant uptick in new mobile customers. The bank brought its people, technology and processes together to meet the demand for its services, Sonnenstein said. That helped when an onslaught of the first stimulus checks arrived.

Bank officials believe customer behavior and expectations of interactions with financial institutions have changed permanently.

“We’ve built a technology end-product design capability [that] will allow us to more quickly adapt and adopt digital technology as customers’ behavior and preferences continue to change, which puts us in a good position in the future,” Egyhazy said. “Crises always do this – they create opportunities in ways you don’t expect.”