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Zoho - customers share pandemic lessons at Zoholics 2022

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton September 13, 2022
Three Zoho customers discuss how they have faced the challenge of reinventing parts of their business in changed times.

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(Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay )

The pandemic has affected organizations in countless different ways, according to a panel at business app provider Zoho’s first real-world customer event since COVID-19 hit. The Zoholics conference took place in London last week.

For many companies, the crisis accelerated long-held plans for digital transformation, while asking some tough change-management and cultural questions. For others, it handed them an advantage of sorts, as their markets and IT choices were well positioned to benefit from home-working consumers. But for some – especially those whose business demands face-to-face contact – the challenges were more severe, but they still benefited from specific teams using SaaS applications.

Lifeways Group is the UK’s largest supported living organization, helping thousands of adults with complex needs to lead independent lives. For this user, the core issue was existential: keeping a socially focused enterprise running at a time when people were forced to be distant from each other. 

Business Development Director Sue Ayton said:

We are an organization that works 24/7 supporting people and that business could not stop at all. So, the challenges were really around digitization, and one of the biggest was keeping going when you've got all these restrictions.

To use the analogy about ships sailing a stormy sea, Lifeways is the biggest provider of support to people in the UK, but in terms of technology it is a bit like a good natured, but leaking oil tanker. We’re a similar size to Zoho, in that we've got about 11,000 staff [the vendor has 12,000], but up to 95% of those colleagues won't even touch a computer, never mind get interested in technology, because we're a people business. We're all about supporting people. 

But my team were desperate to have new technology, and looking after people is better for business. So, when I was quite new in the role – I joined in 2018 – the team were telling me, ‘Please get us off Excel: we’re just filling in spreadsheets, we're not talking to people.’ So, the Zoho CRM system has meant that they can focus more on bringing people into the organization and helping more of them.

What about the cultural and management challenges that many organizations face? She said:

I think it's helped the culture that we have. We’ve got a good culture at Lifeways, because we're all about helping vulnerable people. That's all our teams are interested in, whether they're in business development or are a support worker. Having a system that's light and easy to use means that people will concentrate on what they really want to do.

But that’s not to say that everything was straightforward for this technophobic organization. She added: 

We were starting from zero. We didn't implement it ourselves – we've got a development partner. […] But the big part for us was the data gathering. We've got about 40 offices across the country, but we didn't actually have a database of all our services. So, that took quite a long time. But it's been transformational, because the Zoho system is actually now the basis for all our capacity. 

The proof of the pudding is that Finance has now said, ‘You know better than we do what our capacity is, and who we are actually supporting.’ So now we have one version of the truth. That’s been so important and so revolutionary, really, for Lifeways. We just have that one version of the truth.”

That said, Lifeways is still “not exactly IT orientated”: out of its 11,000 workers, just 76 staff need to use Zoho, and 30 “use it all the time”. Despite this, a carrot-and-stick management approach is needed to ensure that critical data in the system is kept up to date by those users, she said.

One integrated system

Global energy and marine consultancy ABL Group is a very different proposition (or kettle of fish, perhaps). Its constituent engineering companies’ are focused on minimizing risk in those sectors, including offshore wind, easing the transition to new energy sources.

Worldwide, the energy market has been in focus like never before: prices are soaring, and households and businesses are facing an uncertain future. Meanwhile, the environmental impact of fossil fuels and greenhouse-gasses continues to heat the planet. Yet over the past three years, ABL Group has doubled in size. The crisis has been an opportunity for some, it seems.

Business Development Manager Graham Dallas explained that the company is a relatively new user of Zoho products. During the pandemic the oil and gas industry was “practically dormant” he claimed, but with the Ukraine invasion putting energy security in the frame for everyone this year, all that has changed. 

He said:

Zoho was something for us, very much from the customization and flexibility point of view, because we're very demanding and we hoped to find some fairly specific things we wanted to happen.

However, as Lifeways also found, a carrot-and-stick approach was necessary to ensure that the new cloud-based apps and systems were constantly kept up to date with fresh data. He added: 

I find [the products] very easy to use and demonstrate, but there's a lot of pushback [from staff]. We haven't got a traditional sales and business development team. I'm one of two people out of 1,100 in business development. We very much work on the principle of consulting engineers helping their own networks and developing their own businesses, so there was a huge amount of pushback from them, just because it's something new, it’s different.

However, once engineers realized that apps and functions could be customized to suit their needs, they quickly came round to using the system, he said, adding:

The biggest benefit for us is having one integrated system which is visible to everyone. The lifecycle of an offshore energy project might be 15 years. We've got various companies who operate from first principles, devising today’s breakthroughs, to commissioning, construction, operations, maintenance. So, the fact we've got visibility of that project on open touchpoints right across the group is much better than sitting in a siloed office. That is proving invaluable. 

We had a custom module built specifically to cover some of these things, which is working well. So, instantly somebody in South America has an opportunity on a project, or my opposite number in Southeast Asia can work on a project for an offshore windfarm. And it will be deployed in the US, and our finance people sit somewhere else, and the insurance people are somewhere else again. So, there's all these different touchpoints. 

It also let’s us see where we're missing out on opportunities. We know a project is happening, and who's looking at fabrication, or interested in the transportation side of things. So, it's a two-edged benefit, and given the short time we've been using it, we are seeing it already. I'm still quite heavily involved in trying to push adoption.

Keeping pace 

Oliver Bolger is another transformation expert: Head of Business Change at Tenet Group, the UK’s largest independent financial advisor network. For him, one of the advantages of a cloud-based business suite is keeping on top of fast-moving changes in the industry. Bolger said: 

In financial services there's tight regulation and, over the last couple of years, that's only increased, so we have to continue to adapt our systems and processes to comply with that. But also, there’s increasing competition through digital services. 

Just before the pandemic, we decided to get started on a digital transformation programme, but about a month later we all went into lockdown. So, we actually jumped on it during lockdown itself.

Like many businesses, we had a lot of legacy technology, systems that had been around for 15 years – systems that, at the time, that were very good. But gradually, if those systems can't keep pace with what's going on in the business, it's inevitable that users start to move away and towards Excel-based manual processes. 

We had a landscape of various disconnected systems, and they weren’t very well integrated, with lots of disparate data sources. That introduced a lot of inefficiency into operations, and into the business, which just made people's jobs a lot harder. So, we realised that, to continue to compete, we needed to transform all of that, so we switched to Zoho One, to the full suite of applications and processes.

He added:

It hasn’t been without its challenges, and I think the adoption of technologies is always an ongoing process. But generally, people have welcomed the Zoho-based applications that we've implemented, because it's just making their job a lot easier.

My take

Valuable insights from three very different businesses, all sharing the same basic challenge: how to make themselves nimbler and more responsive, so they can focus on core objectives.

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