Featured today in our exclusive series of interviews – Business Leaders’ Perspectives – Riyadh Ali Sultan, General Manager, Towell Auto Centre, shares how his company is working on developing new mediums to reduce the unavoidable direct customer interaction. Excerpts:
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the peak season of Ramadan when business in Oman faced a challenge like never before?
This is an unprecedented challenge that came up and we had no option but to take it head on. Off course, like all businesses, ours has also been impacted. The good part is that we were able to evaluate the risks early on and take corrective action quickly.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past 2-3 months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
We had to follow government guidelines and so our operations only followed the directives that came out. Of course, all our staff were on ‘work from home’ instructions and they were keeping in constant touch with customers and providing all possible support in this manner. Critical deliveries of tyres, lubricants and batteries as per the approval of government agencies were carried out taking all precautions. Our vehicle service team was in touch with our customers to provide assistance and advice on vehicle maintenance tips to ensure that when they could use the vehicles, batteries were operational and tyres did not develop flat spots.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
To us, our first priority is to give confidence to our team and customers that we are fast getting back to business as usual but with precautions and safeguards.
What immediate changes are required in your workplaces, with regard to physical infrastructure, employee welfare, work culture and business promotion, in view of new guidelines related to COVID-19 (social distancing, hygiene/sanitation, health and fitness)?
We have implemented all the guidelines issued by the government, which includes masks to be worn by our staff and customers at our showrooms and other public areas, keeping acrylic partitions between our staff and customers for discussions, and so on. We issue regular guidelines on safety and precautions that goes even beyond what is prescribed.
What do you see as the most feasible solutions for mitigating losses experienced due to the lockdown (cost-cutting measures, downsizing staff, enhancing performance, increasing work hours, any other). Do you consider these as short-term or long term measures?
There is no one single measure that can mitigate the huge negative impact due to the lockdown. We will need to take a series of steps and that will be based on our business projections for the short term and long term. Some measures were immediate, such as adjusting our future orders and thereby protecting our cash flow, and others were long term which would include
re-negotiating rents and studying business viability of our business locations, etc.
What are your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company image, post-COVID-19, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
Our primary objective is to ensure and then communicate to our customers that we are providing a safe place to do business. In our showrooms and other customer interacting areas, we have taken steps for customers to see what precautions we are taking and thereby build their confidence on our operations.
Did you have the option of working from home for your staff during the lockdown and to what extent was it helpful? Will you continue to offer that option as part of your new strategy?
While during the lockdown we were able to give the ‘work from home’ option, in a customer facing and customer service business like ours, it is not possible to have this is as an ongoing practice. We can work towards using digital mediums to reduce direct interaction but it cannot be totally eliminated.
What lessons were learnt from this crisis that would help redefine your corporate goals as well as helping your company experience sustained growth in the years ahead?
We have now put in place a crisis management team with some key stake holders who will be empowered to take quick decisions if such a situation arises again. One other area of focus will be to build and keep certain reserves to manage our cash flow during such challenging times.
In your opinion, how important it is for staff to undergo training to realign themselves with the company’s policies/new strategies as well as to immerse themselves in a new work culture that the pandemic has dictated?
Training is an ongoing exercise and adapting to new realities is included in any new training programme. So, at Towell Auto Centre, too, we are incorporating new programmes that have focus on digital mediums to conduct business. While we cannot totally avoid direct customer interactions, we will be working on developing new mediums to reduce this.
How long do you envisage it will be, if at all, that your particular sector is performing at pre-COVID-19 levels?
Complete recovery will take about a year. We feel, that during the second half of next year we will see the old days starting to come back.
Are there examples of new thinking in other sectors that yours could adopt to good effect?
Online purchases has been something the world was moving towards for a while now. However, this was not too popular within the automotive industry. Maybe, this will gain some traction now, and companies will have to reinvent and increase the scope for customers to do their shopping of cars from the comfort of their homes. We at TAC, see this as an opportunity and are putting additional focus on this area.
What is the No 1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?
We have a fairly big team and the big positive that I can see is the desire and drive the whole team put forward to get the business back on track. Its only when such challenges come up that we get a chance to see the true character of a team. I was happy to see the genuine concern and empathy that the team had for the business and each other. Such a team can easily think beyond the individual needs and get the business back on track. So, to sum up, seeing the excellent character of the team was a big positive for me from all this.