As the COVID-19 crisis set in, lockdowns set in as well, and businesses started closing. However, some of those businesses just could not stop due to their criticality when it comes to serving the communities they operate in. In fact, the more dire a society’s situation, the more necessary these “always-on” businesses become. Although most people hadn’t given much thought in the past to what makes a business “essential,” it has now become much clearer.
Separating the Essential from the Optional
During this crisis, national and local governments around the world have designated certain types of businesses as essential, the food chain being the most obvious. Farms, food manufacturers, processing plants and distribution companies needed to keep operating for food to remain available. In the retail sector, examples included grocery stores, health care institutions, gas stations, and cable, telephone, and internet-access companies, as well as home-improvement and hardware stores.
Many businesses ramped up production and distribution capacities rapidly to ensure adequate essential supplies for both businesses and consumers. Many showed great creativity and cross-leveraged their capabilities to support specific new demands for essential products required during the pandemic. For instance, retailers shifted their hours and manner of operating. To maintain a healthy and safe environment for customers, they limited entry to stores, made social distancing a rule, and screened shoppers and associates for elevated body temperatures. Some set aside specific time slots for shopping by essential workers, the elderly, and other vulnerable shoppers.
A similar response was seen in other industry sectors, as well, as they reframed their work to become more essential during the COVID-19 crisis. Tech companies helped governments build contact-tracing apps and real-time dashboards to track infections. Alcoholic beverage and cosmetics businesses began producing hand sanitizers. Tobacco companies diversified into food. Luxury fashion companies began producing personal protective equipment or medical apparel. Automakers have made a radical shift towards making ventilators. Hotels have turned themselves into healthcare facilities. Third-party logistics companies are getting into last mile delivery to insure provision to consumers of essentials.
How has your company diversified, reframed or transformed its products and services portfolio to stay relevant in the crisis?
Becoming an Essential Business
Essential businesses have a duty to be operational and available, even to be able to expand suddenly during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what does it mean to be an essential business? In what ways should businesses operate differently than other companies to become essential to customers and consumers?
Becoming essential starts with a mindset shift. Businesses must ask themselves: “How can we re-align our priorities and help sustain society?” “What is the nature of our relationships with governments, especially local governments?” “Are we prepared to work in tandem with them if necessary, in a crisis?” “Are we certain we can operate 24×7, if we have to?”
Remember, being essential is a privilege and not a profiteering opportunity. However, if you can shift the way your stakeholders view how you operate and what your priorities are, you can unquestionably enhance your long-term corporate value without sacrificing financial metrics. This is a time to focus ever more intently on customer satisfaction while considering the full range of stakeholders, including employees and the public or community interest.
Essential businesses, more than all others, need to ensure business continuity by carefully leveraging technology. Since business processes today invariably run on digital technologies, ensuring service quality levels, customer satisfaction, and system availability become table stakes for an essential business. Without a strong IT foundation, a company cannot fulfill its responsibility to function as an essential resource. This starts with a winning user experience that includes intuitive navigation and feedback while also taking care of accessibility and availability.
In times like these, operating ethically and transparently is more important than ever. Your external stakeholders will be able to sense your level of integrity, and if you pass the test, the long-term benefits will be great. Internal transparency and maintaining open channels of communication boost employee morale, motivation, and trust.
Prepare for innovation
Every crisis brings opportunities. This crisis has accelerated the technological development of many regions and cities as it became obvious that innovative solutions were needed during the crisis to cater to the needs of the people. Many organizations are offering innovative solutions that cater to health concerns. Retailers are offering curb-side pick-up. Logistics companies are doing temperature checks for delivery personnel. Airlines are eliminating middle-seat passengers. Bike-sharing firms are frequently sanitizing their bikes. Such steps may appear marginal now, but we will see a lot more innovation around “contactless commerce” in the future. Denmark, for example, is deploying UVD robots in hospitals, government buildings and airports to provide relief to overworked healthcare teams and workers. We can expect more drones, robots, and automation in a wide range of business operations, especially in areas with direct consumer interaction.
Take care of your employees
Another critical area is employee safety. Essential companies must always consider the risks, sometimes enormous, that their employees face. Providing a safe working environment is part of being essential, which means abiding by regulations or going beyond them. Traditionally high-touch occupations like retail store associates, delivery personnel, warehouse operators and factory workers need to be provided with clear standard operating procedures around safety equipment, sanitation and personal space.
Rethink customer value
With the economy close to a standstill and many people experiencing a sudden loss of income, people are dramatically more conscious about what they spend their money on. Thinking about that and what it means will be hugely valuable for companies providing essential services today as well as companies that restart operations when the lockdown eases. Products taken for granted in normal times suddenly become a luxury during a crisis. A perfect example is how we feel when supermarkets run out of toilet paper or milk. In a crisis, consumers quickly shift what they consider valuable. Buying behaviors change, from pursuing wants to satisfying basic needs. In recent times cleanliness, sanitization, and social distancing have taken priority over everything else. Many of these shifts are permanent, especially concerns about health and safety.
This unprecedented situation has taught businesses that they must be ready to transform their products and services quickly to serve society. Businesses have realized the importance of being agile, nimble, and open-minded about transforming their core business. Many global corporations are now prepared to redesign their supply chain and manufacturing operations in case of another emergency like this. Retailers have started to transform their stores in preparation of future needs.
A Last Word on Staying Essential
As a Wiproite, I’m particularly proud of the fact that Wipro and the Azim Premji Foundation committed USD 154 million toward a COVID-19 response. The contributions by the Wipro family have reached 7.8 million people. That includes 270 million meals, and 200,000 PPE kits and N95 masks. We were able to contribute COVID-19 relief in Maharashtra, the worst affected state in India. Under an MoU with the government of Maharashtra, we have also turned one of our facilities in Pune, Maharashtra, India, into a 450-bed COVID-19 hospital as part of relief efforts. Our sister concern, Wipro Enterprise Limited, has begun manufacturing hand sanitizers, ventilators (using 3D printing technology), and robot assistants.
I find the sense of responsibility and seriousness spreading throughout the world gratifying. I am certain many businesses have learned during this time that it is not the products or services which give the profits. It is rather successfully serving needs of customers and consumers. At the core of it is empathy to customers’ fears, concerns, changed priorities and needs. If your organization can respond to this, it will surely adapt and stay essential, through this pandemic and beyond.
About the Author
Srini Pallia is President and Global Head of Wipro’s Consumer Business Unit which serves customers in a range of consumer-focused industries including Retail, CPG, New Age, Media, Entertainment, Travel, Transportation, Hospitality and Public Sector. He is responsible for setting the vision as well as shaping and implementing growth strategies for each of these industry verticals.
He is a member of Wipro’s Group Executive Council & Wipro’s Inclusion and Diversity Council. Srini has been with Wipro for over 28 years in various leadership roles – establishing, scaling and spearheading growth across Business Units, Service Lines and Markets. In his previous role Srini was Sr. Vice President and Global Head of Business Application Services, and prior to that he was Vice President and head for Enterprise Business in North America.
He was rated among the top 25 Young Business Executives in India by Business Today in 2008. He has received several accolades for his contributions to Wipro’s growth and customer success. Srini holds a Master’s degree in Management Studies from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering. He has undergone Leading Global Business Executive program from Harvard Business School and an Advanced Leadership Program from McGill Executive Institute.