Staying relevant in today’s data-driven world: Build customer-centricity and hyper-personalisation

Ramesh Shanmuganathan Executive Vice President and CIO at John Keells Holdings (JKH)

Data has gone from scarce to superabundant. That brings new benefits for companies ready to adapt and headaches for ones that aren’t.

The world contains an unimaginably vast amount of digital data. That’s because there is now an abundance of technologies and tools to capture and process data from a host of sources such as smartphones, IoT devices/ sensors, websites, social media, and online feeds. The shift from scarcity to wide availability has broad benefits. It’s now possible to have economies around data in a way that is transforming, not just how business is done, but also how society is organised.

Today, for some businesses, data is now an input that is far more important than capital or labour, and this is fast becoming a norm. Some businesses have figured how to make the most of this data abundance to run their business better by creating sound customer experiences/ engagement. However, despite the abundance of technology and tools to capture data, process and use this information, experts say Sri Lankan businesses are not making the most of it, at least not yet.

When it’s managed well by a business, data can unlock economic value by creating better insights to reach new market segments, launch new products/services, personalise offerings, create better engagement, improve supply chain efficiencies, build better value ecosystems, and in improving the quality of decisions. Besides these benefits, data also creates challenges.

Businesses now need to ensure data they harness and use conforms to high data governance, security and privacy strictures as appropriate and applicable. These got highlighted when the COVID pandemic increased health and business risks. A few organizations, both public and private, were ready for this disruption.

Pandemics can be an excellent time for reflection, not just for people, but for organizations too. COVID’s impact had many businesses reflecting and reevaluating their past investments. Unlike a cyclical economic slump, which happens about once a decade, the speed and ferociousness of the pandemic’s spread and the related economic downturn caught many organizations by surprise.

As governments restricted movement to contain its spread, businesses found it difficult to reach their stakeholders — be it the employees, customers, suppliers, or partners. Not all organizations could reach their stakeholders for the same reasons. Some, like hotels and airlines, saw demand disappear overnight.

Services like banking, critical to keeping the economy ticking, were challenged with operating remotely. Banks struggled to make it possible for customers to conveniently access their services, and for companies to get new facilities. For families obtaining their day-to-day needs, like groceries, was a challenge during the lockdown.

The pandemic was unlike any other hurdle organizations had experienced in a long time. Organisations that struggled to reach their stakeholders in the face of the pandemic had one thing in common; they hadn’t digitised their businesses to the extent of their more successful competitors or to levels expected by their stakeholders and especially their customers.

Ramesh Shanmuganathan, an established personality in providing thought leadership in the intersection of business and technology says “it shook organizations in terms of their core assumptions and how they have been used to connecting the dots in looking at the past and not the future.” Disruptions such as these bring down the weakest first.

Companies with frail margins, leveraged balance sheets, weak customer relationships and poor digital strategy and execution to stay relevant with times. Shanmuganathan is an Executive Vice President and Group CIO at John Keells Holdings (JKH), Sri Lanka’s largest company, a legacy business, founded 150 years ago. He is also Chief Executive of John Keells IT, a fully owned subsidiary of JKH, which is a boutique consultancy and services organization, well poised to simplify and transform businesses for the digital era.

John Keells IT has been working with businesses across industries to transform their business enabled by technology and in shaping the customer journey and experience since its inception with strategic alliances with the likes of Microsoft, SAP, UiPath, Deloitte, and Cisco.

Ramesh has held several strategic, C-level roles since early 2000 at JKH and been the Group Chief Information Officer and Chief Executive of John Keells IT for a decade and a half. He uses the example of the user adaption of a smartphone to underline the importance of being customer-centric and hyper-relevant: “We frequently upgrade our smartphones because we are highly passionate and engaged with that brand, right?” he asks.

“A business must build the same passion and engagement with their stakeholders, and especially their customers, with respect to their brands. They must understand their customer’s context, expectations, journeys and points of friction. They must ask themselves, ‘If each of my customers said: I want what I want when I want it, are we ready to fulfil that ask?’”

As a chief executive, Ramesh sees his role as having to inspire C-level executives of organizations to leverage technology to build customer-centricity and hyper-relevance by simplifying their businesses. While John Keells IT has clients across several sectors, the principles of building customer centricity and frictionless experience are the same, he says.

The signs of the data economy are everywhere, but its shape and utility have only become clear to companies in the last decade. In the mix are companies that are data majors like ride-hailing service, PickMe. Startups that put data at their core are also formidable.

However, most legacy firms are daunted by the data challenge. Data is not an end itself, instead, it can be at the core of a ‘data-driven’ strategy — of using data to create an improved ecosystem to attract, retain, and engage the customers better. Firms that lend themselves to collaborate, co-innovate and co-create to build and scale their businesses by mastering such a virtuous data cycle are called platform companies.

For decades, John Keells IT has built transformative solutions for their clients, within the John Keells group and outside, both locally and internationally. Some of its major clients include conglomerates, airlines, airports, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, hospitality chains, banks, and insurance companies.

A common phenomenon following the pandemic is that companies have woken up to the challenge of staying relevant and in-step with the customer. They are more fearful today that some wildcatter operating from a garage somewhere or one of the global platform majors will mount a serious challenge to their businesses by giving their customers a better experience and personalisation.

Ramesh is of the firm opinion that companies should not get ahead of themselves in their impatience to embrace data, instead suggesting that the path of such a transformation journey needs to go through a maturity curve with defined points of inflexions.

He says it’s a four-stage maturity model, which consultancy and technology service companies like John Keells IT are equipped to consult, architect, design, build and deliver. Overall for a company, it’s about changing the enterprise culture to be data-driven by learning how to sense and respond at a particle level to changing customer needs and aspirations and staying relevant to them.

THE CORE

Not all companies will have properly architectured core systems, like ERP, HRM, SCM, CRM, etc. to capture transactions and other critical business data and convert them to actionable insights. Having these in order is the first stage. If an organisation doesn’t have a well-oiled transaction engine, there is no point in talking about customer-centricity, hyper-relevance, engagement and personalisation, says Ramesh.

John Keells group was one of the early adaptors of these core systems with SAP as early as in 2004 and has been investing across integrated core systems across the group with SAP spanning multiple verticals. John Keells IT, as a Gold Partner of SAP, is well poised to replicate this success with other customers as well.

“If I equated it to a country’s infrastructure, it would be the highways, both physical and digital. Without these, a country cannot prosper. Similarly, a business needs the basic infrastructure in place, and it must be a well-oiled transaction system — their info-structure.”

 

Because data is abundant companies can under- stand and aim to cater to small niche markets anywhere in the world

 

THE CLOUD

Moving applications and the data to the cloud begins the second stage of a transformation. Cloud data centres can be scaled up or down quickly and perform much better than on-premises hosting.

The cloud is also easily accessed over the internet from anywhere and by anyone. John Keells group was an early cloud adopter in 2012. As group CIO, Ramesh led JKH’s migration to the cloud with Microsoft’s Office 365 for the entire group. Few businesses were thinking about the cloud back then, he recalls. In 2015, the group’s data centre was extended to Microsoft’s Azure cloud. This enabled John Keells group to transfer to remote work during the pandemic seamlessly.

John Keells IT, as a Microsoft Gold Partner, has modelled the way on Cloud Transformation for Sri Lanka’s largest conglomerate and more across the regions it operates in. There are several reasons for the data explosion. The most obvious is technology.

Prices of digital devices like smartphones and the cost of access to the internet have plummeted in the last decade. Even a basic smartphone, now the most popular digital device, is packed with sensors digitising lots of information that wasn’t trackable a few years ago. Opportunity is greater in some sectors. “I think it’s in areas like retail, manufacturing, supply chain, financial services, and, because of COVID, also in healthcare and education,” Ramesh points out.

 

THE CUSTOMER

The third stage is where companies engage consumers with personalised products and services. Personalising a product or service is a continuous and independent process, whether by altering the service or reconfiguring the product. Data is a foundation for engaging and personalising a product or service.

When you’re amassing data, then it’s a matter of stitching that data together, driving the hyper-personalisation, Ramesh explains. Helping an organisation make sense of its proliferating data, he suggests, can take interesting and practical forms. He uses the example of a supermarket that can generate a weekly online shopping list for an individual based on their past spending.

“For someone who buys five kilos of rice weekly, the supermarket will dynamically populate a template shopping list with the order.” Demand for personalised is driven in part by consumers, who want the option to change products and services to their specific preferences.

For companies, the advantage is that personalized goods and services often lead to better customer engagement and retention, hence lesser customer acquisition cost. More broadly, greater personalisation can serve as a catalyst for innovation by creating insights that can lead to entirely new products, services, or alternative ways of operating. “Look at me, for instance,” says Ramesh.

“I have multiple personas. I am a CIO, a CEO, a father, a student and many more. My aspirations and needs are different based on the hat of the persona I’m wearing. Thus the date and information needed to profile me as well. John Keells IT uses tools such as design thinking, journey mapping, strategy canvass, and blue ocean strategy to guide their customers towards building customer-centricity.” “So I always ask, ‘If every consumer asked for a personalized product or a service, are you ready to deliver?’”

 

The quality of data has changed. It is no longer limit- ed to a database with well-de- fined personal information. Data is now a real-time flow of actions on- line, from your devices to the internet.

 

THE ECO-SYSTEM

The quality of data has also changed. It is no longer limited to a database with well-defined personal information. Data is now a real-time flow of actions online, from your devices to the internet. For businesses, it is complex interactions of consumers across a range of touch points from physical stores to their follow-up actions on digital platforms, immaterial of time, place or device.

When the data is easily accessible by anyone, anytime, of course within the stipulated governance framework for usage, the customers and other collaborators can use it to create better and lasting experiences for the customers. This has the avalanche effect in attracting more customers and to generate even more data, propelling what is called the ‘data network-effect’. That’s in the fourth stage.

“Companies in the fourth phase of this transformation can collaborate more easily. For instance, I might want to collaborate with PickMe or Uber, and maybe I want to collaborate with banks for payments. I might want to collaborate with an external party for warehousing and distribution. With the cloud and APIs, building a collaborative value eco-system based business model is easier,” according to Ramesh.

Because data is abundant, companies can understand and aim to cater to small niche markets anywhere in the world. Unlike a factory where managers will try to eke out productivity from every machine and process, data scientists can now mine the information for new ideas.

It’s neither ethical nor legal for companies to pass data their customers have generated. The EU, with its GDPR, has legislated this, and many other countries, including Sri Lanka, are introducing privacy laws. As a result, companies cannot share Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Instead, data about individuals will have to be anonymised before anyone other than its primary gatherer can access it.

The John Keells IT, working with the John Keells group and other clients has the expertise, experience to partner, consult, architecture, design, deliver, and support the transformation journey across these four stages based on the maturity of the customer and staying true to their motto, “Disruptive Minds. Limitless Possibilities.”