"Trust, dependability and protection highlight how Covid has challenged but also improved the way we meet customers' needs," says Marius Geyer, general manager of operations for Bidvest International Logistics (BIL) Gauteng division.
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This is in line with the findings of US-headquartered global management consultancy McKinsey & Company, whose research cited four responses as resilience builders in a Covid-era brand:
• A focus on care and connection where a company could be trusted;
• Meeting customers where they are today, given that buying patterns and demand have altered;
• Reimagining the customer-service experience as a result of new preferences and business models; and
• Building capabilities that can withstand increased volatility.
Released in April this year, just as the USA had passed 1 million coronavirus cases and lockdown measures were being rolled back in that country, the McKinsey report detailed how customer service should be adapted for the Covid-19 age.
"Constant communication and a quickly scaling up remote-work technology were our saving graces," adds Geyer. "It helped engender a new level of trust."
The Trust Barometer Special Report
, released in June by global communications firm Edelman, reflected similar findings. In its survey of 11 countries, including South Africa, it found that 70% of respondents felt that trusting a brand is more important today than in the past – a belief shared across age, gender and income groups.
"Trust is now the make-or-break difference for brands," the report noted. Similarly, 85% of respondents felt that solving their problems, big or small, mattered: a brand had to be a dependable provider, a reliable source of information, and a protector.
Adapting to customer needs
BIL was one of many South African companies caught short in April this year when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a hard lockdown that shocked South Africa’s economy to a standstill. Ports were still receiving containers daily, for both delivery and despatch, but strict rules on what could be transported and how saw an unprecedented increase in port congestion, backlogs, stockpiling and bottlenecks.
"Government was continuously updating trade regulations, so changes were mounting on an almost hourly basis, with our customers shouting from the rooftops, also wanting their non-essential goods to be moved, to minimise storage and take control of their cargo," says Geyer.
"This meant we were on the phones 24/7 between shipping lines, ports, freight-forwarder associations and several other roleplayers, to ensure that we had enough info to manage our clients’ cargo and mitigate unnecessary costs and risk."
As information became available, this was shared with clients so they could stay current. This, combined with operational staff remaining connected and working from home, shifted how BIL met customers’ needs – and continues to do so.
"There were teething problems, yes, and don’t forget South Africa’s unique load-shedding and reception issues, but we managed to overcome them and still deliver to excellent standards," says Geyer. With client meetings now quickly set up at the touch of a button using Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Geyer believes that client interaction will continue improving.
In BIL’s Cape region, which services strong retail, oil and gas, and automotive sectors – and where the challenges Covid presented were no different – a massive amount of planning, along with a cultural mind shift, made the difference in how the company ensured top-notch customer service.
"Working closely with our IT department was a foregone conclusion, especially when it meant ramping up the remote-work option for all staff," says Jen Byrne, general manager, Cape region.
Remotely managing an entire operation that stretches across a thousand kilometres between Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London necessitated a major rethink in how the team planned and interacted, with regular meetings and strategy sessions keeping staff abreast of all changes.
Early-morning daily meetings over Skype, which focused on cargo clearances and deliveries to customers, were undertaken, followed by daily national meetings to understand challenges being experienced around the country and what solutions were being used to address them, Byrne explains.
This, along with constant communication on regulatory issues between stakeholders and clients, was never-ending.
Maintaining constant communication
Byrne believes that Covid forced a new level of introspection for the company that is playing out through greater cost savings, better efficiency, and overall a better level of quality. For example, she says: "Working from home forced us to reevaluate as simple a thing is how much paper we used on a daily basis, and we’ve become far more paperless now than ever before."
The ability to think and react very quickly, but bear in mind solutions for scenarios that clients otherwise wouldn’t have thought of or planned for, is what made the difference for Saloshini Reddy, general manager of the KwaZulu-Natal region for BIL’s international import and export ocean division.
There was "regulatory chaos" in the early days of the lockdown, Reddy says, "with relentless changes in shipping lines, government gazettes, customs regulations, and destination requirements – but we rose to the challenge."
The Port of Durban handles more sea-going traffic than any other port in Southern Africa, and is an entry point for bulk raw materials, capital goods and industrial equipment, but also exports minerals, sugar, grain and coal. Oil is refined at the port and piped to Johannesburg.
Aside from keeping clients informed and obtaining the necessary documentation for essential cargo, Reddy’s team constantly reassessed the routing of cargo to provide clients with the best-reconfigured solutions to mitigate interrupted supplies.
The team held daily meetings, with frequent feedback and communication between staff and customers, but also offered additional services, such as messenger delivery/collection where certified documents could be collected from customers’ private residences.
"We tried to pre-empt customer needs, too, by negotiating special rates with service providers over the lockdown period, extending free time and negotiating special storage and handling rates with warehouses, carriers and container depots.
These new solutions engendered the level of trust and 'humanness' that both the McKinsey and Edelman reports talk about," says Reddy.
Working unusual and often long hours "demanded a lot of our people", says Reddy, "but when people, in general, are working for a common good, it becomes less of an issue and more of just giving clients peace of mind that, despite the chaos of a crisis, they can depend on and trust us to get the job done, effectively and on time."