Big Interview: Crisis is the opportunity to spur innovation and business resilience

Big Interview: Crisis is the opportunity to spur innovation and business resilience

In this special COVID-19 webcast, Lee Hayhurst speaks to Simon Cox of Publicis Sapient about innovation in a crisis, technology and how travel firms can instil resilience into their businesses to emerge from such challenges in the best possible shape 

One of the positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic could be a resurgence in innovation as travel firms embed a flexibility into their business model to make them resilient to further crises.

Simon Cox, senior director of customer of customer experience and innovation at Publicis Sapient, told a Travolution COVID-19 webcast that the best in innovation is often seen in a crisis.

He said in more benign environments, it is often difficult to get C-suite buy-in and sponsorship for innovation, but as travel businesses fight for survival, needs must.

Cox said this can be seen in the reaction to the crisis in parts of the NHS which have had to throw off bureaucratic shackles and move at speed.

“At the moment we’re seeing that natural innovation that’s driven by a crisis in being able to build a hospital a matter of days.

“Everyone I know who speaks about or works in the NHS will say it’s bureaucratic and siloed, but all of a sudden you can bring those silos down and do something amazing.

“And look to companies you’ve always felt have innovation absolutely at their core, like Formula One teams, who can create a ventilator within a few days and are already starting to scale it.

“I think what we’ll see coming out of this is when the focus is on resilience, crisis management and how would we cope if this happened again, is businesses say let’s be much more focused, let’s clear out stuff that is not creating the right outcomes, that isn’t creating a genuine return on investment.

“And they will inevitably focus on the enablers of innovation, on speed, on making sure that we have got the right technology in the place, bringing silos down and creating that environment will ultimately lead to more innovation.

Throw out the rulebook

Cox added: “The beauty of a crisis is that it’s not business as usual. Business as usual is the thing that kills all innovation, because it gets us back into just optimising on current practices.

“When you rip up the rulebook and you say throw the current practice out the window inevitably that creates the right rich environment for doing new things. Not respecting existing norms, that’s where you get into a rich place for innovation, for sure.”

Although Cox said he does not necessarily believe people will be changed that fundamentally by the COVID-19 lockdown and will return to their old ways fairly quickly once countries start easing restrictions, he believes businesses will need to change.

He said businesses are going to look at bringing in more automation so they operate more efficiently and this will see them working harder to unlock the promise of data and artificial intelligence.

“Human beings don’t change that quickly. But I think businesses will need to change because some of our expectations will be different.

“If I look at the work that we do in the in financial services sector, a lot of that has been predicated on can we do more with less capital and less cost and obviously, automation, data and being able to unlock the power of Artificial Intelligence. These are areas that will optimise companies in the future.

“And I think more and more we’re going to start seeing businesses not just talking about this, it’s going to be an absolute top table priority.”

The crucial role of communication 

Cox said although many travel brands are under huge operational pressure with entire teams furloughed and yet thousands of customers looking for service, whether that’s information and advice or refunds and rebookings, those that manage to maintain communications will emerge in the strongest position.

“There’s almost two ways you can go with this. You can say, we’re just going to shut down, not communicate with customers.

“I’d imagine that most people whether it’s in retail or whether it’s in travel have had an experience like that in the last four weeks where you’ve seen that the resilience of the business just isn’t there, they don’t have a fallback. And so they just can’t communicate with you.

“And it builds up. Even though, as consumers, we appreciate that this is a difficult period of time, it still feels like companies should be able to correspond with us, we should be able to pick up the phone or if we’re talking on email, we should get a response.

“What you’re seeing is the best of breed comes out of these times. The ones that are able to keep that communication going. And also the ones that you feel are dealing with you in an ethical kind of way.”

Being proactive and corresponding with a customer to offer a deferred booking before they demand a refund, or in other sectors deferring gym membership or paid TV subscriptions, will maintain that  customer relationship, said Cox.

And he said having the technology in place so firms can offer flexibility in the way they treat loyal customers according to their personal situation and needs, is proving essential, particularly in sectors like cruise.

“The companies that have got the right technology in place can start to triage and prioritise. If you’ve got the right technology to be able to do that, you are going to be in front of your most loyal customers, because they are going to be the people that are going to be first coming back to you.

“I think people sometimes forget how, particularly with social media, there’s an expectation that we’ve become very unreasonable as consumers, but I think when you see a crisis like this I think they understand that we are in a crisis period.

“So, you can buy yourself time with the right communication but it’s when brands go silent, that’s where you allow the consumer to fill in the expectation that they’re not going to be dealt with properly, that they’re not going to get their money back.

“Speak to your loyal customers, show them what you’re doing. Just be very human. I’ve seen examples where the email has come from the CEO. There’s a personal touch to that. And I think it buys a lot of goodwill for the future.”

Harness the human

As consumers get more comfortable interacting more over platforms like video calls during lockdown and will be in need of reassurance after the crisis, Cox predicts those firms that have a human touch in their DNA will benefit.

“I think you respond to those brands. We’ve all seen the poster child of this kind of thing with the likes of First Direct when you know when you speak to someone that you’re speaking to a human being, and that’s always been valued within their business.

“But it’s interesting how it’s already starting to come into advertising. A lot of TV advertising at the moment is bringing out some of that community feel, obviously saluting the amazing work that’s going on in the NHS and putting the right messaging forward.

“We’ve only been at this for four weeks, and it’s been interesting seeing the level of speed and responsiveness in a lot of businesses. It’s going to be interesting when we do come out of this, whether they can continue to be harnessed in the future.”

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