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CX IN A CRISIS – Interview with Khaled Akl, Former Global VP Customer Development, Unilever

This is the first of the AshtonCast episodes dedicated to CX.

This episode is focused on CX in a crisis, and right now with COVID-19 massively disrupting all facets of life and business, we are certainly faced with a crisis, the size of which we have never dealt with before.

As a CX practitioner, most of your training and experience will have been focused around business as usual.

But what do you do when business as usual becomes business as unusual?

Join Khaled Akl, Former Global VP, Customer Development, Unilever and your host Gavin Stewart, Co-Founder and Marketing Director, Ashton Media as we unearth lessons learned by Akl during the Arab Spring and see how they can be re-applied to today’s COVID-19 crisis.


It’s fair to say that we’re living in extraordinarily unusual times; As Khaled Akl, the former Global VP Customer Development at Unilever says, “during any crisis management event, you have many presenters talking about best practices when it comes to journey mapping best practices about how can we manage the customer experience about metrics about different applications that we can make use of, so that we deliver a fantastic customer experience. However, all of that assumes it is business as usual. All right. However, in this world of ours, it’s not business as usual anymore. Sometimes it is business unusual.” And right now is certainly business. As. unusual.

With the rapid and global rise of COVID-19, we’re all grappling with the new normality of social distancing and isolation, and what that looks like for us personally, the businesses in which we work, and the customers and communities we serve.

It is a uniquely challenging time as we see the core fundamentals of everyday life, of consumer behaviours, and the ways in which we’re able to communicate with our customers changing dramatically in the space of only a few weeks. But, as CX leaders, this also presents us with a unique opportunity to excel in our customer experience, and to be there for our customers in their time of need, building long-lasting customer relationships, trust and loyalty that thrive well into the future.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

While this pandemic has created its own host of unique challenges, there are certainly lessons that we can learn from those that have championed the customer experience through other times of crisis. As Khaled Akl, hammers ho me in his Keynote at the Customer 360 Symposium in 2016, no brand is immune to crisis, and having a customer experience crisis management plan has never been more crucial.

While those words were uttered in 2016, they have never, been, more profoundly relevant.
Akl specialised in managing customer experience in times of crisis. Based in the Middle East, an area he refers to as “the CNN market” on account of the number of news stories coming out of the region at the time, Akl has experienced first-hand the importance of having a plan in place. During the Arab Spring, under Akl’s watch, Unilever decided to continue operations in Egypt, and suddenly it was not business as usual. Instead, it was very much “business as unusual”.

This is how Akl described it: “6.30 No president, no constitution, no government, no parliament, state of emergency as well as curfew”. “No fuel. All the banks are closed or shut down. We’re talking about no access to telecommunications, no internet, and we’re talking about all ports going on strike.”
The region was experiencing total chaos.

While most of the businesses operating in the region, particularly multinationals, shut down at the behest of global head offices, Unilever bucked the trend, deciding to manage their customers’ experience, during the Arab Spring.
Before you write off what Akl shared, thinking it has little relevance to the Australian market, or the uniquely challenging pandemic-related environment we find ourselves in today, he suggests you take note. He points out that crisis can be security or safety related. It can be business related, economic related, IT related. Anything that can cause business interruption is defined as crisis. He reiterates that the whole world is unsafe. Nobody is immune.

I think it’s fair to say we’re all, no matter what sector we’re in, now operating in a time of crisis.

We are certainly in a time of ‘business as unusual’.

And, as he alarmingly points out, not everybody is equipped to manage crisis, and that we usually design our customer experience and how we handle our customers when everything is stable and it’s business as usual.

Based on this experience managing the Unilever business during the Arab Spring, Akl has formulated a five-step model to manage customer experience during uncertain times. He said: “ 9.42 This is not sort of a harvard business. School model or an MIT developed model? No, not at all. This is the model that the people on the ground came up with, so that they can manage the situation on the ground and still maintain Unilever business in this part of the world during this tough time.” While he developed these five steps in relation to his experiences during the Arab Spring, they are wholly applicable to businesses operating in any time of crisis where the day-to-day has been vastly disrupted, and as such, are key things to consider as part of your business or CX strategy planning over the next few months as we navigate the new normal. The five steps he formulated are: “9.42 authentic leadership, putting people first, leading the change, decision making risk management and putting in place a corporate governance.”
One of the cornerstones of the crisis plan is the need for authentic leadership. Many people define leadership in different ways, but as Akl says “10:30 the one aspect of leadership that was needed the most at crisis time is to be authentic, authentic with yourself authentic with your people. So that whenever you are taking a decision, it is the right decision both for the business and for the people”.

Authentic leadership also needs effective communication, both internally and with the company’s customers, which in Akl’s case was shops and supermarkets such as Tesco. For a multinational company like Unilever with offices across the globe and more than 172,000 employees at the time, communication is no mean feat.

Akl believes that if you don’t communicate with your customers enough, that’s a mistake. If you don’t communicate with your people enough, that’s a mistake. He continues by saying that the leadership needs to stand up to the situation. If leadership chickens out, that’s a mistake. If you’re leading from the back, that’s a mistake. He reiterates that you need to lead from the front, be with your people, lead by example. Usually during the time of crisis, most businesses will be more concerned about communicating with the outside world than inside the organisation.

That, Akl believes, is a huge mistake. He says that you need your people, your troops, to know what is going on. You need to inspire them, keep them well briefed. You need to agree to a decision-making process, how to make a decision during the test time and without losing sight of corporate governance. Because maybe you have a crisis situation now, but tomorrow, it will be business as usual.

He also notes that times of crisis are volatile and are rapidly evolving. “19.38 During the challenging times, it’s very important that you learn and reapply you learn and re apply because the situation is very volatile, it’s very liquid. So it’s very important. you respond to the situation as it goes on, and on and on.”
This most definitely applies to the environment we find ourselves in now. Ensuring that we are communicating to both our customers and employees in the most sensitive and authentic way possible, recognising their unique needs and challenges, and being fluid and agile in our response in line with the evolving situation, is imperative. Our customers want to know that we’re there for them; they want to feel reassured. Our teams and employees will be looking for guidance and reassurance as we all navigate the new normal of working life, from the unique challenges that come with working from home day-to-day while managing childcare and at-home schooling, to what our roles look like in this changing environment and, most painfully, the potential threat to job security.

Opportunity that can come from operating within the chaos; resilience and adapting to the situation is also important especially.

Every crisis has a silver lining.

The question is, how do you uncover it?

For businesses that get it right, there are rewards to be had such as gaining market share and standing out from the competition. Of course, there is also the danger of looking opportunistic which can be avoided by being authentic. Akl noted that when your people, your customers, and your consumers see you are authentic, and that you’re doing this genuinely and that it’s for a good cause, then they start to reward you massively.
With food products making up almost half of Unilever’s business, the company had a very real purpose within the crisis. He explained how food naturally became one of the topmost priorities during this devastating time of crisis, and so one of the main reasons they decided to stay in business was simply to make food available for supermarkets and the consumer.

“And they’re talking about a country where food shortage was the name of the game, people would actually go to a supermarket and not find any food to buy. Okay, so at that time, it was the responsibility of the big companies like Unilever working in the field. foot to be, I mean, to remain in business that they can make sure that we maintain supplying our products to the customer so that our customers during the non curfew hour can supply food for the mass as well. So part of this was that actually we cared for the communities where we operated. we cared for the people that worked for us, we care for the customers, we cared for the consumers and for our own people as well. But to make such a big decision, I mean, you need to be mindful about it and its consequences”
Still, the logistics of pulling this off meant Akl and Unilever had to change up the way they did business. One of the greatest challenges was money, with banks closed and ATMs not working, which led to issues from paying employees’ salaries to selling goods to customers. Akl noted that there was a huge change in management associated with this.
Okay. During business as usual times, the main focus of any business is basically people and brands. Okay. I remember clearly that one of the CEOs of Procter and Gamble once said, you can take all the factories, all the brands, but leave my people. And in 10 years time I want to build you another Procter and Gamble just in 10 years. You If you just kept the people so usually the focus is on people, as well as on brands, because brands is part of the company equity, right? However, during unusual time, you need to worry about people, assets and cash. Because sometimes cash is an advantage, sometimes it is a disadvantage. So at this point in time, we needed to have cash, or right, we needed to have cash, not in our bank account. But cash is in physical cash, to be able to pay for the suppliers to be able to pay for our own people, for distributors to manage the whole operation. So cash was king at that time. So that’s a change of mentality

With the response to COVID-19 enforcing strict limits of physical spaces and face to face meetings, most businesses are having to pivot their entire offering or business model, and are certainly having to change the way they do things to varying degrees, in order to adapt to the new normality of everyday life that we find ourselves in now.

But by demonstrating that we truly care about our customers, by conveying our purpose as a customer-led business, and by finding new ways to meet their needs and reassure them at this uncertain and challenging time, we have an opportunity to build long-lasting, authentic relationships that thrive far beyond the pandemic.
Akl also raises another key point: to deliver on your customer experience promise in times of crisis, be prepared to work with some unlikely allies. In Akl’s case, this meant teaming up with the army to bring in shipments of goods after curfew hours. It also meant working closely with Unilever’s competitors.
“21.42 we’re talking about the enemies of the past becoming the Friends of the future because simply, you cannot survive alone, you need others with you as well”

This too, is wholly applicable to the times we find ourselves in now. And it’s true to say that while we have never been more physically distant from one another, the spirit of ‘togetherness’ and community has never been more prevalent.
From strangers offering to help their vulnerable neighbours with day-to-day requirements such as buying groceries, to companies such as Door Dash helping to keep the independent restaurant and café sector alive by reducing their commission fees, and offering free delivery to those customers supporting those restaurants. There have never been more examples of people and businesses coming together to survive, and hopefully to thrive, in these unprecedented times.

How can you work with some unlikely allies to strengthen your position in this challenging market?
Following Akl’s work during the Arab Spring, the Egyptian market won Unilever’s Global Compass Award. The award recognises the best-performing markets within the group based on business metrics such as growth, profitability, and market share.

There are of course vast differences between the Arab Spring and the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are not too dissimilar in the challenges they present for both ourselves and our customers; they have both created unprecedented uncertainty and have wholly disrupted our normal ways of working as both a business and a community.
There are incredibly valuable learnings to be taken from Akl’s experiences and his five principles for managing customer experiences in uncertain times. We can apply these as we come together to navigate the new normal over the next few months, putting both the needs of our customers and employees at the forefront, and creating solid, trusting relationships that will flourish as we reach the light at the end of this tunnel.

As Akl said as he closed his Keynote at the Customer 360 Symposium, “26.51 some of the activities that we fear, the most would definitely contain our biggest opportunity”.

Now is the time for understanding, authenticity, sensitivity, leadership, communication and a sense of togetherness as we build the foundations to come out of this stronger than ever.

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