The activist CEO: a new breed of corporate leader


July 2014

Sarah Nicholas

As global agribusiness and Gong client Olam International enters its 25th anniversary this month, one might expect much congratulatory back patting from Sunny Verghese, the group CEO and founder. Rather than resting on any laurels, however, Sunny has seized the opportunity to reflect on how much more there is still to be done and the place in the global ecosystem that Olam could – and should – now take.

Agitating for change from the top down is fast infiltrating the ranks across sectors and industries, and stirring up a new breed of corporate leader: the activist CEO. The successful business leaders of this brave new age, Sunny observes, are unafraid of ‘taking on issues that are bigger than themselves and their own sphere of influence.’

Gone are the times when a business leader had to set up a foundation in order to use their influence for positive impact around the world (Mo Ibrahim and Bill Gates spring to mind) – there is a growing conviction that the businesses themselves can do good. Unilever’s Paul Polman has long been leading the activist pack for systems change beyond the factory gate among governments, suppliers and consumers. At the same time, sustainability initiatives now sit at the heart of major companies such as Marks and Spencer’s ‘Plan A’ and SAB Miller’s ‘Prosper’.

Moves like these indicate that the sustainability-driven C-suite cohort, though small, is growing. And why should that be a surprise? As Sunny recognised in his blog piece, today’s successful business leader necessarily confronts inconvenient truths like climate change and dwindling natural resources: if he or she is to weather the challenges of today’s world, it is the only thing to do.

Customer Experience: A lift for retailers who walk in their customers’ shoes.


July 2014

Narda Shirley

I heard a great story today about Howard Smith, the Operations Director of Crossrail. In order to truly understand how it is for tube and rail travellers in London he travelled from Euston Square to Kensal Rise pushing a baby buggy to experience for himself what it was like to be one of his customers. And the outcome? There’s now a lift at Kensal Rise tube.

This little anecdote illustrates the insight that can be gleaned from walking in the shoes of your customers. It’s part of a relatively new discipline that is helping businesses as diverse as Royal Mail and Argos to boost sales and loyalty by delivering a better customer experience.

It sounds like common sense, but it transpires that when you ask consumers questions in focus groups, they give you a different steer from their observed behaviour in real situations. The reason is that we switch to autopilot when we are carrying out many tasks and make emotive decisions in the moment, versus using the conscious mind to help make other more rational decisions (like which car to buy) at a distance.  And the subconscious is very susceptible to experience clues that are all around us. We are very able at decoding an experience in an instant without anything even passing through our conscious brain. In retail, a lot has been documented about sensory perceptions and how use of smell or sound can trigger a positive emotional response. The satisfying ‘thunk’ of a German engineered car door for example. We heard other examples of negative subconscious signals including tatty handwritten notices asking for no violence towards staff, and chained up charity collection boxes. It hardly says ‘please come again, we value your custom.’

But what came across very clearly in the presentation from expert practitioner, Sally Burrell, was that most companies are only just waking up to customer experience as a discipline, despite the gains it can deliver at relatively low cost. Rather than embarking on extensive refits, it can be something as simple as inaccurate perceptions of queuing time among customers that need to be addressed.

Last week Forrester put out a new report titled ‘How customer experience impacts revenue’ which will no doubt help cement its place as a new discipline. Interestingly, it isn’t the exclusive domain of brand and marketing people as it often needs operations expertise in the mix.  Where we predict it will really turn heads is in the boardrooms of PE and VC firms looking for ways to turn around tired businesses or steal a march with a feisty new challenger brand.

Brian Harrison, CEO of our newest client, Swoon Editions (backed by Octopus and Index) made the point that even though theirs is an online business retailing furniture, when there are questions about deliveries, there are real people at the end of the phone to help customers.  ‘We found most of them working at the Apple Store, these guys love solving problems to make things work for people.”

As our expert, Sally explained, one of the most crucial elements of customer experience is the Peak-End Rule – nothing matters more in customer experience terms than what happens at the end, as it’s what people remember most vividly when they make a decision about whether to ever return. As Howard Smith discovered, battling through the tubes with a buggy is never going to be a walk in the park, but a little lift at end makes all the difference in the world.

Placing a premium on local insurance knowledge


July 2014

Sarah Caddy

In the UK, the personal injury insurance industry continues to be beleaguered with the reputation for bogus claims driving up premium costs (reports state that 78 percent of all UK personal injury claims are for whiplash injury, compared to just three percent in France, for example), slow pay-out rates, and poor forecasting.

This reputation for poor value and lack of individual approach is also present in the corporate insurance world, with recent headlines stating that BT’s £40 billion pension scheme has established its own wholly-owned insurance company in order to access the insurance and reinsurance markets directly and “achieve the best value” for the pension scheme. The message left unsaid: the trustees couldn’t find an adequate offering already in the marketplace.

Turn your gaze to the insurance services of the fast-growing markets, which (despite having their own critics) continue to innovate when it comes to service and product provision. There is much we can learn; they highlight the importance of new technologies and an enabling regulatory structure. In Brazil, for example, insurers have created policies for older cars that provide smaller amounts of coverage along with a higher deductible. They also offer one month, third party liability automobile insurance plans that buyers can activate using their mobile phones. Closer to the Gong fold, East African client APA Apollo has launched an agricultural microinsurance scheme, Mifugo Maisha, which uses satellites to survey the availability of pasture for animal grazing, then predicts the number of animal fatalities and provides insurance to cover the potential losses.

This expectation for enabling, inclusive provision may come as a shock for foreign insurance firms looking to expand internationally and capitalize on the growing consumer base that is so attractive to the sector. Not to be left behind – the main players are on the march to the fast-growth economies already; Prudential has bought into Ghana and is looking at East Africa, other rumours abound. Let us not forget that it is local knowledge, expertise, and understanding how technology can be used to improve the everyday lives of the local consumers, which will give British and other global insurers an edge.

To read a case study on the work that Gong has undertaken for APA Apollo in East Africa, please click here.