Executives at this year’s Virtual Asia Leadership Retreat described how they have acted rapidly and shifted to a more customer-centred approach. While tech has been one enabler, a skilled and motivated workforce is also essential. 
A poll at the Retreat – which was held in association with Refinitiv and St James's Place – revealed that an overwhelming 98 percent of attendees had seen an opportunity to revisit their business model.

Michael Crompton, General Manager for Asia at Criticaleye, said, “Tech-enabled businesses have been the real winners during 2020 – but even those that were already ahead have had to face into the disruption and evolve further.

“Customer behaviours have changed and some of this will stick. The businesses that are closest to their customers will be able to leverage this relationship to innovate and adapt most successfully.”

The unsought accelerant for this reinvention has been the COVID-19 pandemic. David Mann, Chief Economist for Asia and MEA at Mastercard, evoked its massive impact in his opening session. “Outside of the post-World War Two economic collapse, there has not been a worse time than the one we’re currently in. In 2020, we witnessed the worst peacetime downturn in the last 100 years,” he said.  

However, he signalled that there is cause for optimism if governments across the globe continue to pursue policies that encourage growth. “We are going to get some improvements from the vaccine, as well as see the benefits of the enormous monetary and fiscal stimulus that has been applied to the global economy,” David said. 

“There is a need to keep going with aggressive fiscal policy support until we’ve reached the other end of the vaccine implementation. It will be expensive, but it is necessary. The IMF is quite supportive of the idea of not rushing towards austerity. It’s about supporting growth to enable the recovery to take place.”

Ecommerce will unquestionably be crucial to the reinvention of many businesses. “When we look back on this year, we’ll probably conclude that we saw at least two years’ worth of progress within a few months in terms of the trend towards the use of digital,” David commented. “It's not just more people, it's also older members of the population going online. Of the new retailers opening up – even in the US – most of them are non-store retailers.”

As President for Asia Pacific at Kuehne + Nagel, Jens Drewes is part way through a business transformation. This is a five-year project for the 80,000-employee organisation that, two years ago, asked itself how it could stay ahead in an ever-changing environment. 

“The overarching direction for us was to put customers’ needs and expectations at the centre of everything we do,” Jens said. “The endgame is to drive our organisation from a typical B2B, performance-driven one to a business that is very customer-centric, outperforming the market.”

Kuehne + Nagel identified three key drivers for this journey: the fast-paced world, how B2B and B2C business models are converging, and the way that global events are accelerating tech developments. “Based on that, in 2018 we launched our Roadmap 2022, building on the three dimensions of customer, technology and people,” Jens said. 

“If we didn’t change then in years to come, we would fall behind and not be in a leadership position. So, the key driver was understanding the end consumer. For a B2B company that can be difficult, but it’s necessary.”

As with all transformations, the tone from the top is crucial. Jens explained: “You cannot order customer-centricity or just talk about it, you have to really show it. Customer service is not a department, it’s an attitude, and you need to demonstrate the behaviour and the commitment.”

Neil Pabari, Managing Director and Head of Sales for Asia Pacific at Refinitiv, agreed. “How aggressively senior leadership within the business want to drive transformational change is important,” he said. He observed that where people sit in the organisation can affect their risk appetite, with those on the frontline, in client-facing roles, potentially being more open to such change.  

Neil set out another obstacle that he frequently encounters in organisations shifting to a more customer-centred model. “Siloed thinking is also an issue. You may get one department transforming quite actively while another is not keeping up. For example, Sales, Product, Tech and Customer Service areas might evolve at different speeds – this can result in a slightly disjointed customer experience,” he said.
Breaking down barriers
Joydeep Bose, Managing Director & Group CHRO at food and agri-business Olam International set out how he had faced up to this problem when the pandemic caused Olam’s Out-of-Home segment to collapse. “We had to change the kind of products we were producing [and]… address customer needs that were changing on a weekly basis.” The business had to be very flexible in how it reached its customers.

Joydeep said that part of the solution was revisiting how the organisation was structured. “We had to change the way we work, cutting across an organisation that was more used to working in silos. We reached out across the businesses and addressed issues as a cross-functional team.” 

Satisfied customers and engaged and happy employees are inextricably linked. Neha Pareek is HR Director for ASEAN and Singapore at IBM. She said that engaging employees has never been more crucial – or more challenging – than it is now. “Employee experiences must be meaningful, simple and cohesive. In ASEAN, as the pandemic scaled across the 6 countries, we launched a campaign on ‘staying connected’ to focus on employee wellness – physical, emotional and mental – and provide resources to improve productivity. The leaders also focused on living the IBM Work from Home pledge. 

“In addition, there was a key focus on ‘having fun' virtually – be it virtual retreats, happy hours, baby showers, promotion celebrations or leadership announcements – we've done it all virtually as IBMers and been together virtually while working remotely.”

Neha then pinpointed a factor that connects the satisfaction levels of customers and employees: trust in a business and its leaders. “This year, one of the key 'aha' moments has been the value and importance of trust,” she said. “To lead, operate or do business virtually, trust is key. 

“We learned that data-driven leadership is determined by the levels of trust an organisation can create – among its customers, the people inside the enterprise and the partners across its ecosystem.”

The mood emanating from the Retreat was one of optimism and energy, notwithstanding the challenges still faced by many countries in the region. The organisations that succeed will have placed their customers at the heart of this business model transformation, while their people will be aligned and motivated to deliver it. 

Emma Carroll, Managing Editor, Criticaleye
The next Community Update will look at the current challenges within diversity and inclusion.