How did the business world cope with digital transformation on fast forward?.


As pubs finally open their doors and we all look forward to our first visit to a hairdresser in 4 months, I'm reflecting on where this crisis has left us and how business is reacting. COVID lockdown has hit us all in many ways. Economically, mentally, and spiritually. I get a sneaking suspicion that this is a life-changing experience which will affect us all forever.

Economically the change will be much easier to measure. The lockdown has put millions of businesses into a position of inevitable insolvency. The harsh reality is that many will never be able to trade out of this situation which will result in vast amounts of personal debt and unemployment. I'm no economist, but it's clear that like any financial crash it will take the world many years to recover.

It's a time where our relationships have been tested. Not only at home where 'quality time' with families has been scarce, but at work too. Relationships with peers and clients are of paramount importance to success and key in making it through the crisis. At Sagittarius, we've worked hard to accommodate both our customer and colleagues needs. We have spent far more time listening, understanding and empathising with others' situations and their resulting pain. We are building stronger commercial and working relationships to help each other thrive and survive.

As a CEO and agency leader, it's been fascinating to watch digital transformation thrust upon the world. Every business, charity and service possible has been forced to reconsider its proposition and service in a world where the internet is the only thing keeping us all connected. Remember this is by design, not default - the internet was born of a US Defence project in the 60s to enable widespread communication during a nuclear fallout. In any scenario that locks the population indoors, it is now understood as a critical lifeline for the planet.

A wake-up call

This crisis has forced us to rethink everything we do. For many that started with grocery shopping and hunting for essentials online, but for business, it began with virtual boardrooms where the C-Suite met urgently to recognise and discuss how their operation has to change. It's been a time to reconsider propositions, routes to market, delivery mechanisms and perhaps if it has any future at all.

Across the sectors we specialise in we've seen real shifts. The Financial Services industry, which is pretty much virtual anyway, have wrestled with customer service issues where so much has been historically dependent on the telephone, mail or face-to-face meetings to 'transact'. Ironically Banks have been closing branches for years to save money, but as Metro Bank has shown, the best customer experience is a mix of on and offline. Equally, brands must not see 'digital' as merely a way to streamline operations for efficiency but a golden opportunity to improve customer experience.

Travel & Tourism has been one of the hardest hit. Restrictions have seen an 80% drop in flights with hotels and attractions simply unable to open their doors. This is an area where 'digital' could do very little to help keep businesses moving. By contrast, however, Digital is an area that has been critical for those brands to survive and put them on the front foot as we head back into 'the next normal'. Those that are well funded have been able to give the best customer service through their websites. Flexible alternatives to refunds and pushing onwards with digital marketing has elevated these brands to become the most 'trusted'. Unsurprisingly being 'front of mind' is now creating the fastest uptake in bookings. Travel will eventually recover, but with consumer confidence in tatters and corporate travel slashed, potentially forever, it'll likely be a slow process.

In manufacturing, the brands that only sold products via retail stores are now counting the cost. The old and established model of working through distributors and retail groups has them paralysed and forced many to close. Many of the brands that we work with already have direct-to-consumer models and digital retail partners and are capitalising on this crisis - with some experiencing 3-fold revenues at the peak. Working with international brands gives us an insight into how it has been possible to 'ride the wave' with a diversified portfolio. Many were held back by global supply chain issues or had to stop manufacturing as we saw the first coronavirus peaks stagger across time zones. But for others, their bigger footprint also meant that in pre or post-affected countries, they were still able to retail as a global organisation and therefore, overall business never came to a standstill.

The education sector has been slower to react than many have hoped. As a father of two teenage children, I've been frustrated at how poorly the education sector has coped with adapting to a remote teaching model. Many 'business-minded' Universities recognised that they needed to change faster, both to look after their 'customers', justify the associated fees and have any chance of seeing a positive intake come September. Conversely, it took three months for my Son to do his first Zoom call with classmates whilst spending much of lockdown self-learning his A-Levels. Barely any 2-way interaction with teachers doesn't cut it in a digitally-enabled world. Each school has a different story to tell with different student demographics, budgets and staff profiles, and we recognise teachers are under pressure, but most businesses were able to find new ways of working within a week or two. Just as companies now have to contemplate trading via a unique combination of on-site and remote working, the education sector must do the same.

The Charities we work with have also been hit hard and from all directions. Life-long donors and trusts have paused their gifts, fund-raising events cancelled and face-to-face street collecting pointless. As an agile sector, it has been fast to react using online tactical tools, but it now needs to think about longer-term strategy and leveraging its more significant technology investments to carve out a new more personalised future. The 'cause' remains imperative and in some instances has increased in urgency, but I'm confident that this pandemic will see further burden thrust upon charities as they support the most deprived communities, the inevitable mental health and economic fallout.

The last sector we've been helping adapt is the Health sector, in particular Care Homes. Older generations have been isolated even more usual over the last four months, but Digital has proved itself to be heart-warmingly useful. It played a crucial role in keeping communication channels open between loved ones and also pivotal as part of remote services during a massive recruitment and staffing crisis. Aside from the well-publicised lack of PPE and government assistance in care homes, they have had to deal with losing many of their qualified staff to the NHS via mandatory secondment creating an unplanned race to recruit and backfill additional staff to bridge the gap.

So what have we learned?

Generally, businesses were ill-prepared, and excuses are thin on the ground. Many of the remote working tools and practices have been in existence for some time. Many companies had not adopted them or embraced modern, flexible working practices through choice. It has been a stark reminder demonstrating that those resistant to change have a cultural challenge first and foremost because the right technology is ready and waiting to be embraced. Now every business leadership team across the land is having to embrace these options and ultimately and select the routes that its customers preferred all the while.

Are we ready for a 'digital-only' world though? Not quite yet. This period has proven that whilst digital tools and processes are viable alternatives or preferences in some instances, there is a beautiful human need for face-to-face interaction. The desire to see and touch products for real (before or after we do our online research) appear to be paramount in how we view the world around us. At the moment, our virtual meetings and shopping experiences are still drawing down on the banked store of relationships and knowledge we had before the lockdown. It is proving challenging to retain team culture without the informal 'water-cooler' conversations and chit-chat over lunch or coffee. We need to restock those reserves again before we become too 'disconnected' from the real needs and wants of those around us.

This is why, at the core of every great brand or business, it is essential to have 'connected' systems. Digital and real-world behaviour are part of a continuum. A consumer must be able to float between a brand or retailer's shops and websites. They should be exposed to a consistent and relevant experience from Social Media through to checkout. It's never been a short term fix, but it'll place your business ahead of the pack in the 'new now'. C-Suites across the globe need to look even harder at their investment plans to ensure they can keep up with consumer expectations - and the competition. This requires vision and careful execution for companies, and they'll need support with strategy and road mapping perhaps more now than ever before. Digital Transformation is still not something business leaders are trained to do, but at Sagittarius, we are lucky that our team of consultants have been doing it for years.

We've also long been a multi-location business, so remote relationships are our bread and butter. For others, it's a fresh experience to discover that working from home actually works. No longer will people use air quotes when saying "working from home". It has its unique challenges but will no longer be considered by some as a 'cheat' day, and for the millions of us, it has been an upside we want to keep in our lives moving forward. Across the agency, it has been marvellous to observe how professional, responsible and productive we can all be - even if left to our own devices! Like many businesses, we have adapted our management and communication to suit, but for us, productivity and progress have continued to be healthy if not stronger.

Essentially everything comes down to money. Or perhaps profit versus investment. Just as individuals we have had to adapt to our new ways of working, pay cuts and reprioritisation of how we spend our money, business is doing the same. For example, the Financial Sector is under tremendous pressure to support both individuals and companies to help them recover while re-evaluating its own value proposition. Despite the sector being 'well funded' some brands have been complacent about what the demands of the customer genuinely are (or will be) and too much focus remains on the age-old 'cash cow' areas of finance. This recent crisis has meant that everything from CBILs loans applications to mortgage payment holidays has overwhelmed them and tested customer relationships to the limit, perhaps shining a light on how arthritic legacy processes can be. All brands need to act fast, be agile and adapt to the next normal before their competitors or new disruptors steal the prize. Customers can and will go elsewhere, and the banks, in particular, are beginning to feel the pain of this reality and not moving with the times.

1 in 4 under 37-year-olds have confirmed they are using digital-only challenger banks and 14 per cent of UK bank customers across all age groups have at least one mobile-only digital banking provider*. Now more than ever is the time to think ahead, understand your customer needs and invest in a proposition that is fit for a digital future.


Paul Stephen
Paul Stephen
Co-Founder & Executive Director
With over 25 years in marketing, Paul is one of the UK's leading experts on digital marketing. He oversees the agency and often lectures and consults within the industry on digital and marketing related subjects and has a particular interest and skills in the travel and tourism sectors.

Paul operates nationally and internationally, helping brands to think outside the traditional horizontal and vertical channels and transform their business with creative multi-channel marketing and digital re-invention.
Paul Stephen

Paul Stephen

09 Jul 2020 - 7 minute read
share this

stay in the know, stay ahead.

Get the latest from the agency, including news, events and expert content.
find out what we can do for you
read some of our case studies