What I saw when Covid-19 put digitalization on rocket fuel

10 May 2021

By Anna Albinsson, CMO at Dun & Bradstreet International

More than a year after Covid-19 shook up our world, an intriguing question is how the pandemic has affected European corporate decision makers and their companies. What is at the top of their todo-lists? What has been their biggest challenge? Those who have handled it best - what have they done?

When Bisnode became part of Dun & Bradstreet in January 2021, one of our many initiatives was to make sure that we understood where customers on our many markets were mentally. How had Covid-19 affected their business? What issues were on their minds?


One powerful trend, accelerated

As we traveled around our 18 European markets (of course “travelling” via Microsoft Teams), we identified a number of common themes – apart, of course, from the fact that we met with people in relaxed clothing, working from home, all across the continent.

One of our employees, a strategic relationship manager, summed up his impressions in a simple and powerful statement:

– Covid 19 has put digitalization on rocket fuel!

A marketeer in Finland referred to a simpler kind of fuel to form a similar metaphor:

– Today, almost everything is based on data. And to be able to digitalize – you need good gasoline.

This trend has, of course, been ongoing for years. Now, for reasons that are as simple as they are powerful, it has accelerated: when people can’t come to your business, because of lockdowns and restrictions, the only way forward is to interact digitally.

We were not the only ones to notice this. In October, McKinsey wrote:

“In just a few months’ time, the COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business. Their companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years.”

What really excited me was that we were sitting in the front row witnessing all this through our many customer relationships across Europe. No, more than that; the front row is not the right expression. After all, we were working intensively with helping them digitalize, through the services and the expertise that we provide. We were part of the action. And that gave us interesting insights.


Winners all have digitalization high on the agenda

The fact that digitalization is a positive benefit is not new. But it went from nice-to-have to need-to-do. As one of my colleagues, a product manager, said:

– Our customers know that this is what they need to do to survive. Once Covid-19 is over, they won’t revert back. They will continue to behave in that way.

Now, even smaller companies have started to think: How do we automate to reduce headcount? Where don’t we need to have individuals?


Raising the bar for customer experience

We at Dun & Bradstreet are proud of our many contributions, for example with global data and decision-making tools. But it’s harsh realities that drive development forward.

As a colleague in risk and compliance said:

– Amazon has changed and damaged my view of shopping. Now, I expect everything! The level of service they offer…they color the way we see the world!

So, the bar is raised higher and higher for companies to compete through the customer experience they offer. That’s how it’s always been, you could say. But now, it’s happening faster than ever. Using data to be more sophisticated in the customer interaction has to happen now!


Finding a new way to interact with suppliers

Winning is not just about winning customers, although that of course is a priority for most. It’s also about understanding your suppliers:

– Corona is driving a need for a much better understanding of who your suppliers are, commented an expert in risk management.

That’s a no-brainer. Since the world has become shakier since the pandemic began, understanding suppliers is more important. Will they continue to serve you? Or will they perish and leave you with a broken supply chain?

And understanding that now has to happen in a new way.

– Big firms instinctively fly people around the world to do things, one of our top executives said. All of a sudden you can’t do that anymore. So, you have to use data!

Another voice, a colleague in Sweden, filled in:

– Frighteningly, many do not know their suppliers, he said. You can have hundreds of suppliers – and somewhere in the supply chain deliveries cease. If you have surveillance, you can be notified early.

There were many examples – the most colorful one involved a  hamburger chain that couldn’t ensure deliveries of hamburger bread. It’s not hard to understand the devastating business consequences of that.


Winners have found a way to ease the burden of compliance

Of course, as we continued to ask around the continent for the current status, not everything was pandemic-driven. And yet, the solution turned out to be the same: increased digitalization.

For example: today, many perceive the increasing demands of compliance to be a great burden.

– There are more and more demands to check for money laundering, sanctions lists and so on, a Swedish colleague said. An ever-increasing number of companies contact us about this. They want to know how it works.

Voices across Europe agreed. Questions can come from anywhere: from shareholders, your own staff or customers.

– It’s one of those things that you, as a company, find boring, one voice said. But you can’t answer incorrectly.

By digitalizing to achieve nonstop KYC, Know Your Customer, the burden can be eased.


What about the others…?

At the other end of the scale – who has lost the most? What have they done? If you’ve read this far, you know the answer: it’s what they haven’t done that’s the interesting part. They haven’t digitalized. They’re still in manual mode.

– They essentially still have service centers that do the job, a German colleague said as an example. They can have hundreds of people looking at paper documents and going through and verifying data.

Once upon a time, this probably seemed like a good, productive idea. To outsource or nearsource or whatever word was used to sell in the idea, in order to lower costs for the manual handling. But as the pandemic spread, it simply didn’t work.

– When the pandemic struck, these people had to go home and they couldn’t do their work from home, explained my German colleague.

As simple and catastrophic as that. Some of these were large companies where internal politics had prevented them from modernizing their ways.


Those who struggle are often big

– You would think that the biggest companies are the most sophisticated, a colleague said, sharing his experience from the DACH market. But in my experience, the medium-sized companies are the most sophisticated, because they can move forward. In large international conglomerates, internal politics, changes in management, changes in strategy, and so on, play a big role.

Some of the big fish got caught in the pandemic’s net and couldn’t move forward in the way they wanted.


The data-driven companies “didn’t skip a heartbeat”

If you look closer at the winners in these challenging times, it’s nothing short of impressive:

– So many of them didn’t skip a heartbeat because of Covid, a UK colleague noted. We’ve seen it from our metrics – they’ve continued to grow.

The impression is clear from the many conversations across Europe: the winning customers are data-driven businesses – that have the drive to continue improving.


What characterizes them? Three things

Firstly, these data-driven businesses are where they are as a result of their drive:

– They’re never prepared to settle down, the strategic relationship manager said. They always look for new data, to improve performance through data, analytics and technology.

The more sophisticated want to become even more sophisticated. “What’s the next step?” is what one of them keeps asking us. That’s a typical question from one of the companies that hasn’t just survived in the pandemic, but thrived.

Secondly, they don’t see data as something “nice.” It’s much more. It’s key.

– They are taking data seriously, a solutions consultant said. It’s a driver. Data has become sexy – or at least interesting. The quality of data. How you collect it. That has become a real talking point.

Thirdly, and one of our most interesting observations, has nothing to do with anything corporate, nor about ways of organizing work or anything like that. It’s personal.

– The situation can be completely different in different companies in the same industry, a risk specialist from Denmark said. It’s about the mindset of the decision makers.

Successful companies are fortunate enough to have leaders with the drive to always become better, to understand the potential of data and who have the ability to carry out that change.


What now?

No one thinks that things will revert to the old ways. So it’s a safe bet that these data-driven companies will continue to grow. Those who have realized that data is the rocket fuel for development will continue to charge ahead.

On a personal note, it’s been great to see our global data being put to evr better use as fuel for companies who want to move forward: to onboard customers better, to check suppliers more efficiently, to set credit strategies that support growth and to support automation that creates efficiency.

At a more basic level, many were happy just to continue doing business when society shut down. And that makes me, and us, proud. We have contributed to the fact that many people still have jobs to go to, so they can continue to provide for their families during the pandemic.