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2021: The Year for Creating Competitive Advantage Through Ecommerce

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Last week, Business News Wales was privileged to carry a high-profile Digital Discussion on the critical subject of ‘Creating Competitive Advantage Through ecommerce’. 

Hosted by Benno Wasserstein, MD of the digital evolution and change management specialist, Box UK, this virtual roundtable brought together the views and experiences of Steve Dukes, CEO of Confused.com, Tom Lewis, Director of Sales for Admiral Financial Services and Sina Yamani, CEO of Yoello.

An in-depth and wide-ranging discussion revealed key insights from the extraordinary learning curve of the last 10 months – and looked ahead to how organisations can build future success through ecommerce in 2021 and beyond ….

“A 3-4 year ecommerce evolution crammed into a matter of months”

Benno began the discussion by putting into context “a year of Covid restrictions that’s seen ecommerce thrive, with a reported 36% increase in online sales and a 3-4 year ecommerce evolution crammed into a matter of months.” So what has the pandemic brought about for the other businesses around the table – and ‘what’s next for 20121’?

“Yoello had to in effect pivot and at the same time grow from five people to 40 in the past year, with social distancing and other restrictions in place,” explained Sina. “So it’s been ‘interesting’! Fortunately we had been building out our solution for a few years before all the craziness struck, so it’s also been a very positive experience, developing our culture, refining our efficiencies and making sure everyone is able to work to their full potential.”

“We’ve pivoted, grown from five people to a team of 40, working hard on our culture and our processes.”

How did Covid impact Confused.com? “We’ve had challenges, obviously” agreed Steve “but we were fortunate in that we’re in the business of helping our customers save money, so our business itself has been resilient – though of course we needed to adapt to the changing circumstances of our customers. The effects of the pandemic brought uncertainty to people’s lives and a greater need for clarity – so we made sure we put in place initiatives like our Coronavirus Hub, which answered questions from customers in as full and understandable a way as possible.”

“Adapting to changing circumstances meant providing greater clarity for customers.”

The pandemic had an immediate and very profound effect at Admiral, as Tom recounted: “I’m part of the Lending Team and it would be true to say that the pandemic took our business, turned it upside down and gave it a good shake. Firstly, it’s totally changed the way we work. On lockdown, most of our customer agents worked in the office on physical phones and desktops, so our product and technical teams had to work 24/7 to equip our agents with the means to service our customers. Secondly, our customers’ behaviour changed in an instant, with furloughing and the offer of payment holidays meaning that we were receiving more calls than ever, just as we were having to move to new processes and ways of working.”

“It took our business, turned it upside down and gave it a good shake.”

“To put it into perspective, our CIO was online trying to purchase as many laptops as possible, to put in the hands of our agents, to deal with the demand” continued Tom “and throughout all of this we were refining new processes and data fields, sometimes with multiple iterations in a single day. Finally, we took the decision to suspend writing any new business and concentrate on serving our existing customers through what for many of them was a potential crisis. And when we re-entered the market, the world of credit rating had changed, so we’ve had to adapt our protocols accordingly. Given all of that, it’s fair to say the past 10 months has been transformational for our business; and as we exit Covid we’ll be a much stronger business for it.”

“It’s incredible that three-quarters of our new customer applications come via a mobile device.”

Benno highlighted a number of common areas where Box UK has helped different customers rapidly evolve in the past few months – and asked the panel what trends they had observed?

“Mobile usage has gone up tremendously,” noted Tom. “It’s quite incredible to think that three-quarters of customer applications now come through from mobile devices. It’s surprising that we’ve not noted any real growth in desktop applications, so there seems to be a blurring of the work-life balance going on. And it’s amazing how applications from tablet users have dropped to about 1% – from 10% three years ago. So customer behaviour has most definitely moved.”

Sina concurs: “The use of QR codes and other mobile payments applications has seen huge increase. A few years ago we saw the move from cash to card payments – and now there’s an even quicker shift from card to mobile. This is only going to grow, as the UK’s financial regulators are now opening up competition -and this will create an open- API-led ecosystem that connects different verticals, offering a much richer and interconnected experience to customers. That customer experience – saving them time and bringing convenience by shaving off a second of the transaction – will be the difference between winning and losing market share.”

“An open-API-led ecosystem offering a much richer and interconnected customer experience.”

“For me, all the trends point to a continual transformation in multi-channel experience. We’re testing services in Messenger and voice technologies  right now – as well as anticipating a revolution in open finance that gives control of data to the customer”, says Steve. “All of this is driven by the fact that the building blocks of technology are now so much more powerful and advanced, giving us the capacity to embed far greater flexibility and access than before. This will continually deliver ever-better services to the customer – and that will drive continual innovation, so we’re looking at a virtuous digital circle that businesses need to embrace.”

Benno agreed: “We recently worked with a client in Asia who built an end-to-end ecommerce enterprise in three months, when the previous timeframe expectation would have been 18 months. This pace of delivery is the new rule of thumb.”

For Tom, the key trends could be summarised as ‘Automation, Personalisation and Data’: “tailoring the customer journey to make it much more contextual, including building-in AI-powered personal Web chat, all enabled by deeply-understood data. In fact, I think we’re going to see a complete change in the way that customers view their own data – they’ll expect businesses to use the information they know about their customers to personalise the experiences they deliver.”

“Building an end-to-end solution is now done in 3 months, rather than 18 months.”

The discussion finished with Benno asking the panel to give their ‘best piece of advice’ to any business looking to move from ‘traditional’ commerce to a future-proofed ecommerce model.

For Sina, it’s all about “utilising all the resources available to you. Stand on the shoulders of giants – there are many experts out there who will give you what you need. Do your homework and choose the right ecommerce partner – they’ll allow you to concentrate on what you do best and  together you’ll build an agile business.” Tom agreed, warning “don’t be tempted to think that only you understand your business and sector and therefore only you can build an ecommerce platform for it. Think of ecommerce as a sector in itself. It’s taken years of expertise and investment for the best ecommerce experiences to evolve – and whatever you do will be judged against that standard.” The final (and perhaps reassuring) thought belonged to Steve: “Digital doesn’t mean ‘impersonal’. You can – and must – try and keep the human element of what you are, of what your brand promises to customers. Digital is about delivering that promise in a more efficient, cost-effective and sustainable way.”