Since the coronavirus pandemic struck us a fortnight ago – and that’s all it is since the World Health Organisation called it, two weeks – almost every conversation I’ve had with friends, colleagues, peers and connections has come round to the same thing: as business leaders, entrepreneurs, C-suite executives and board directors, how do we survive this thing? How do we get through? What tricks can we deploy, and what can we learn from each other?
Don’t believe anyone who claims to have a panacea. “Magical” solutions to business problems are rare, and if you devise one, you’ll still be talked about for years to come. More likely, however, you’re overstating your case and overpromising on results. What most people don’t know though, is that the answer is hiding in plain sight.
I was recently talking to my friend Adam Hadley, chief executive of QuantSpark, a data science consultancy. Originally a physicist, he now marries tech expertise to global advice and analysis for major corporations and smaller operations. His real gift is taking incredibly complicated scientific and technological data and making it relatable and relevant to everyday lives and businesses. Which is why I was able to grasp what he was saying!
Adam’s argument is that expert analysis of data on a granular level – and by that he means drilling into details such as footfall at different times of day, or whether a certain product sells better at one store than another – can provide retailers with a priceless tool to stay ahead (to stay in business, even) when the economy has suffered a seismic shock like the one caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. This approach can be extended to other businesses too.
Information on consumer habits, fulfilment lines and delivery procedures (literally and figuratively) will fuel the competitive furnaces and allow QuantSpark’s clients, and the industry more widely, to understand what’s happening, make evidence-based predictions for the future, and implement effective solutions. For the retail sector, for example, this means that the big supermarkets can localise their procurement and display choices to give shoppers what they’re looking for at precisely the time they need it. In the face of an extraordinary crisis, business must show extraordinary resilience and adaptability. The alternative is simply failure and closure.
One of the most basic lessons I draw from what Adam, who I interviewed on my Business Leaders podcast last year, was telling me is that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. When the global economy suffers a convulsion like the one presented by coronavirus, many businesses won’t make it out the other side. A few, though, will do more than survive: they’ll expand, prosper and boom in the face of adversity. The key is to find new opportunities, not just recover the old ones, with data as the key differentiator.
There’s one caveat, though. Business lore likes to glorify the spark of intuitive genius, the lightbulb moment, the flash of inspiration which changes the market forever. Remember Henry Ford’s probably apocryphal remark on the drudgery of customer feedback: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Far more often, though, real business transformation comes through crisis, and the hard work that follows: data gathering, careful analysis, implementation plans. Put simply: the nerds will save the day. Yes, Will Smith saved the planet by blowing up the alien mothership in Independence Day, but it was only Jeff Goldblum’s calm consideration of data that enabled him to get there.
This is what Adam was explaining to me. He calls it ‘crisis analytics’, deploying the interpretation of data to address clear and present threats to a business. Does it work? Well, QuantSpark has a track record of advising retailers large and small, as well as financiers and government institutions such as the UK Department of Culture and the Australian prime minister’s office.
The coronavirus crisis is a prime opportunity to take a cold, hard look at your business. The more you know about your customers, what they’re doing and how they’re thinking, the better you can cater for them. Leave behind what you think you know about what your customers want and look at the figures: they don’t lie.