To Survive in Business, Adapt or Die

How do we keep our organizations resilient in volatile times — and how do we stay agile in the face of change? Market fluctuations have business leaders asking these questions, but to me, they’re both the same. Agile businesses are resilient businesses. 

This principle played out clearly for a rental car company we worked with at Brooks Bell. At the beginning of the pandemic, travel and hospitality flipped upside down. Suddenly, customers cared less about convenience and more about cleanliness. This rental car company looked at their data over the course of those early days and saw a surprising trend. People were still renting cars at about the same rate, but they were using the vehicles differently: not for vacations, but for necessary travel. Customers would rent cars to get out of cities or safely visit relatives. 

The company realized they had to move their fleet quickly. They relocated their fleets from airports to more central places, like malls and city centers. This required a lot of logistical maneuvering, but ultimately helped them survive.

This type of agility serves businesses in situations far beyond car rental during a pandemic. So how can other orgs learn from this scenario? At Brooks Bell, we break resilience down into three truths. They are:

  1. Customer expectations are constantly changing
  2. Customers send signals about what they want in all their interactions
  3. Organizations that quickly interpret those signals and remain agile, win

If you create a culture that works with, not against, these ideas you will stay relevant. This process looks different for every business, but there are common obstacles we see over and over. I broke down a few of these issues to help you on your road to resiliency.

Siloed departments kill agility

Specialization is a siren song that we see many companies fall prey to. While listening to expertise and organizing work based on shared characteristics is helpful, separating workflows can too easily hinder communication, understanding and speed. Siloed workflows often result in department-specific KPIs. Of course, business divisions naturally will have their own sub-goals. But when they’re all measuring something different without communicating, working toward a singular goal becomes next to impossible. That’s when important customer signals get missed.

If the rental car company only used sales data, for instance, they would’ve seen no dip in rentals and assumed the pandemic hadn’t changed consumer habits. Customer experience and logistics needed to be involved from the start to spot this “between-the-lines” information. Sure, sales and web teams may have different data — but customers don’t divide so neatly. You can collect all the data in the world, hire the best people to interpret it and have the best tech to execute your vision. But if you’re not working from a common understanding, you won’t be able to keep up with changing expectations.

Orgs need a sense of urgency

Customer expectations change quickly. You can’t always predict when or how that will happen, but you can respond with the same speed. Restaurants have been a great case study for this. Think about your favorite local establishments. Which ones survived the pandemic? My guess would be the ones who were first to switch their business models from dine-in to takeout and delivery. These restaurants’ resilience underscores that across industries, survival depends on a sense of urgency. 

In business, the average rollout time for an adjusted customer experience is ten months. In today’s world, that’s an eon — as much as five Prime Minister terms, if my math checks out. Think about who you were ten months ago. You were probably still sticking to your New Year’s resolutions. Think about the ten-month difference between March 2020 and December 2020. For a lot of us, that was the difference between apocalyptic despair about the pandemic and renewed hope from a vaccine. 

This ten-month timeline might have business sense behind it, but it doesn’t make sense for customers. They don’t care about the machinations and layers of approval at work in your company — they just want you to hear them and respond accordingly. 

Put people first, always

Data is important. Without it, we can’t measure progress, learn from mistakes or understand our successes. Data’s also necessary for adapting to customer demands. If orgs base decisions on anecdotal evidence or how things feel, they won’t notice trends quickly. But your org has to remember what data represents: people and their decisions. If your company is so focused on the numbers it forgets the people behind them, it’s not going to interpret the numbers well. Agility starts with marrying qual with quant. Your data will be much more powerful if you use it to underpin a humanistic approach. 

Brooks Bell’s recent Banking Personas Data Report validated this approach. Fraud and identity protection capabilities were some of the biggest influences on baby boomers’ banking decisions. But for younger generations, these security layers mattered incrementally less. The obvious explanation: Younger generations are savvy to modern scam techniques and don’t have the money or desire to pay for extra protection. Understanding and using that data is pretty straightforward. But what about less straightforward data?

Brooks Bell found that Gen Z and millennials make banking decisions based on “reviews of my family and friends” at a higher rate than Gen X or baby boomers. You could interpret this two ways: 1) Young people care more about their peers’ approval and opinions, meaning image and brand association matter more than business practice. Or 2) Younger people have less experience with personal finance and managing money. They are more likely to look to people they trust for advice until they’ve determined their own preferences. 

Honestly, the correct answer is probably a combination of both. But understanding these nuances is something only human contribution can provide. Marrying that quantitative data with qualitative analysis will give your company the best chance at survival.

Adding human input to your data analysis process can slow you down — but if you do it with streamlined communication and a sense of urgency, it will help your business in the long run.

Change is here to stay

The only constant in life is change, and that change comes from unpredictable human behavior. Resilient businesses understand this fact and incorporate it into their business model. Successfully adapting relies on building a central structure that allows for quick pivots based on human understanding. From restaurants to rental cars, resilience comes down to an agile, urgent, people-first approach. You might not be able to predict the next big disruption, but with the right culture you will be able to respond to it in time.