TUI’s CMO on turning insight into action at pace

TUI now acts on customer insight “almost immediately”, a change brought about by the pandemic that CMO Katie McAlister says must remain in place if it is to retain a competitive advantage.

tui / holiday

TUI has rapidly increased the rate at which it uses customer insight since the onset of the pandemic. While decisions might have taken months to filter through a year ago, changes are now implemented within a matter of days, according to CMO Katie McAlister.

TUI, like most in the travel sector, has been severely impacted by Covid, but she believes one positive it will take away from the past year is how quickly the business can move from insight to action when needed, and the benefits of doing so.

It has shown “just how quickly the organisation can get stuff done when it’s focused on what’s really important”, she said, speaking on a panel this afternoon (23 March) at The Festival of Marketing: The Bottom Line.

“We survey [our customer base] once a month to understand what their attitudes are to travel, what they need to feel safe to travel or to book travel in future, that sort of thing, and the insight we’ve got out of that, we’ve put into a proposition almost immediately. Whereas we all know that in normal times it takes a little bit longer for that insight to become action,” she said.

McAlister said this focus has enabled TUI to become far more customer-orientated, giving the brand a far better understanding of customers’ motivations and needs.

The junior members on my team really enjoyed having that exposure through digital team meetings to the kinds of discussions that were happening.

Abigail Comber, Debenhams (former)

With all its retail stores closed, for example, TUI was forced to move customers online overnight, something it had planned to do over a two- to three-year period. In doing so the brand was able to see how many customers would be willing to move online.

“We had a plan for how we saw our retail estate panning out and we were able to accelerate that,” she explained. “We could see that what people needed wasn’t necessarily a physical store experience but expertise, so we’ve migrated quite a lot of our retail estate to be home working. Because as long as customers can access the expertise that’s what they actually require – not the actual stores.”

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Given the positive impact these changes are having, McAlister is keen for them to become permanent post-Covid. In order to do that she said “focus and priority” will be key.

“We’re going to need to have far less on our to-do lists going forward, because that seems to be how we can corral and organise everyone to get things done at speed,” she said. “The second piece is really using customer insight and the business seeing it is a really effective way to gain competitor advantage. Keeping that momentum up will be really important. Both of those things together will give us that ongoing agility.”

Don’t aim for perfection

To keep up this pace of change, it’s important for marketers to get used to things not being perfect, so long as they involve consumers in the process, said Abigail Comber, Debenhams’ outgoing CMO, who was talking on the panel alongside McAlister.

“Often we aim for perfect every time, but after going through [the pandemic] people realise we don’t live in a perfect world, things change and they change quickly. Be willing to put things out and get customers involved and go ‘we’re trying this, does it work for you?’ and if not listen to your customers, take that feedback and move things on. This is like one massive beta test for everything we do,” she said.

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Moving at pace and coming up with a solution is more important than getting it 100% right first time. There are also benefits to testing new ways of working that may not be immediately apparent. Debenhams had to set up an in-house customer contact centre when stores were first shuttered last year as it could no longer work with its supplier, but the solution it came up with has performed better than the previous model.

“Our supplier that had 250 people in three countries across the world just literally dropped us as the BCP [business continuity plan] didn’t work, there wasn’t really one. It was just something that nobody could ever have planned for,” she explained.

Staff that had been working in-store prior to lockdown were sent laptops and began helping customers with queries about orders or refunds.

“[Customers] were talking to real shop floor colleagues from Debenhams and it was amazing, we had the highest NPS we’d ever had in the customer contact centre. They were having to deal with things and we were rolling out technology to their homes really quickly. We would never have done that before. We were so quick to respond,” she added.

Comber said having digital team meetings, rather physical ones, also helped more people within the company understand the business’ objectives as more people could be involved.

It meant people within the in-house creative team, for example, understood why the marketing team had made certain decisions, and it also had clear benefits for people in commercial roles and more junior marketers, she said.

“For people that work on the more commercial side of the business that gave them a much broader view of how things were changing, what things were important to the business and the speed at which those decisions needed to be made. Rather than not understanding why a product was taken out or put in, or why copy was changed – they were given the context of that,” she explained.

“I know a lot of the junior members on my team really enjoyed having that exposure through digital team meetings to the kinds of discussions that were happening and the understanding of the decision making process. It really made them understand how important they were, but also where they fit into that overall wheel of commerce.”

The challenge as businesses prepare to go back to some form of normality, and people split their time between working from home and being in the office, is ensuring things don’t automatically slip back to how they were.

“I don’t think we will ever do anything quite as much at speed as we did then, but we must never slow to the pace we were all at before,” added Comber.