As any South African business person will tell you, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a stressful time to be running a company. However, as we have worked to mitigate the effects of Covid-19, we have also gained a glimpse of what the future of business might look like. It is an exciting prospect.
This is not to downplay the incredibly difficult time we find ourselves in. Lives are being lost, people are falling ill, quarantine regulations are forcing families into heart-breaking situations. Lockdown has come with its own hardships and has also led to the downfall of several businesses.
These are terrible outcomes, and one feels for our fellow South Africans. However, the crisis has also taught us something.
In our business, when the state of disaster was first declared, our initial focus was to understand how regulations applied to us, and then to ensure the safety of our staff and our customers.
People are remarkably resilient, and it was a pleasant surprise to see that staff and customers settled into a new routine within a couple of days.
However, there would be no getting away from the economic impact of the global shutdown. The statistics from the first two weeks of the lockdown were unprecedented. Some businesses saw their income streams evaporate overnight.
As a business in the telematics, fleet management and vehicle recovery space, we saw our call-outs decline to almost nothing. For the first time in our history, our metrics reflected no criminal incidents on certain days.
We were not busy, which was worrying, but the quiet period gave us a chance to critically evaluate our business and consider how we would structure our operation going forward. This was Design Thinking made manifest. We had a chance to structurally reinvent ourselves.
We also started to notice some interesting things. For instance, despite social distancing and remote work, we were having more conversations with our customers than ever before. We were mostly checking on how they were managing the lockdown and finding solutions around payment relief to help each other through the lockdown.
But we came to realise that customer service is not a function of physical interaction. It can be done just as effectively – more effectively, even – by digital means. The power of technology allows one to speak to the entire workforce at any given moment.
Similarly, with internal staff communication. Through our weekly newsletters, virtual town hall meetings and other engagements during the lockdown, are staff relations have in fact improved.
As a direct result of this enhanced staff engagement, and suggestions from staff, we will be launching four innovative new products to market following the lockdown period.
We have found that we’re probably more productive as a business, and we’re communicating better with our partners, customers and co-workers than ever before. We are determined that after the lockdown, we will embed these more effective digital ways of working into our operations.
We also found ourselves taking a closer look at our assets. Metrics showed our staff were as effective working from home, which has forced a fundamental rethink about our premises, and the need for a centralised campus.
We are now looking at becoming a remote-working organisation by design. We are also enhancing our ecommerce capability.
On a more human level, our company has been blessed to have been spared any serious Covid-19 incidents. But the threat is real. This has led us to interact on a more humane, empathetic and sincere level – as clients, suppliers, partners and colleagues.
Staff are supporting each other, practically by sharing lifts to work, or by forgoing leave or financial bonuses. We are coming to understand how much we all mean to each other.
This also has implications for customer relations. When we start relating from a position of empathy, and we feel fulfilled at really being able to help each other, then customer centricity becomes easier to implement.
When the initial lockdown was declared, and business slowed to a trickle, we also looked at how we might make the most productive use of our staff. We decided to invest in training, through our learning platform with Udemy.
Staff uptake on the various courses has been phenomenal. We have found such a hunger for further education and self-improvement, that we have come to a new understanding of ourselves as a “learning organisation”. It seems the more knowledge we provide, the more appetite there is to learn. Two-thirds of our workforce are enrolled in training courses.
On the AI front, while we have always used artificial intelligence to gain insights, the pandemic has forced us to make better use of it. Today, we use chatbots to manage customer queries and to enhance CRM management.
Our response times are now quicker, and metrics show that customers are happier. We have seen that putting the customer at the centre of your business is not just about face-to-face meetings. You can use technology to serve your customers better. This is what we plan to do.
It has not been easy, but our business will survive. We will emerge from the pandemic as a transformed, more digital, customer-centric organisation, with a deeper culture of learning, and stronger human bonds with our people.
Those human bonds are what business is all about. The pandemic didn’t quite teach us that, but it did remind us. Our shared humanity is what holds us together.
By Pierre Bruwer, Managing Director at Netstar, a subsidiary of Altron