Back in the year 2001, my business partner (Hugh Meredith) and I were lucky enough to have been awarded a position on the BT Vision 100 Index; an award given to the UKs 100 most visionary companies. Considering we only started the business in October 1999, not a bad result.
At the time I remember feeling absolutely astounded that we would have made the short list. I recall thinking ‘really, all we are doing is what is obviously needed’.
Both Hugh and I had previously worked for multiple field marketing agencies, all of which were capturing data on pieces of paper and sending them via the post to an office to be input. One agency actually required a list of 0 and 1 to be entered in to boxes on a pre-printed sheet, these were cross referenced to a question list; 1 for a yes and 0 for a no. Sounds straight forward, however it was actually quite tricky and presented lots of opportunities for error. Losing your place whilst capturing data could mean a total restart, less than ideal.
‘Innovation just seemed to happened, but you need to be mindful to connect the dots’.
So, we created a company looking to solve this problem by doing the job better than anyone else, by the use of technology as the competitive advantage. So what would be the end benefit to the customer? Faster, user friendly, more accurate, auditable and a greater quantity of data, in a format which was useful to them. In our opinion this was significant enough of a reason for clients to review their current supplier and move the business to us. Sounds good on paper…
There you have it, a purpose for the organisations, ‘A Reason for Being!’ I can assure you, we weren’t 100% sure of the ‘HOW’, but we were determined to find a way. A comment from my old boss was “I give them a maximum of 6 months”, there’s the ‘DRIVER’. In those early days that was enough. We knew what we had to do and we had the determination to make it a success. This lives with you every day. Every rebuff from a potential client just fuels you further. It’s the ability to learn, apply, relearn – repeat; absolutely essential in a start-up.
What we need to remember is that when the company was formed in 1999, the internet was still relatively new, smart phones didn’t exist, phones just made calls and texts, Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) were still relatively new and the best internet access anyone had at home was a 56.6 kb dial up connection.
So where do you start, well we needed to build confidence in the new venture, so were very proud of the fact that we were the first field marketing agency to have a website, yes it might have been a static site with contact details on it, but this was rocket science man (or woman)! As you can see from the picture below, by today’s standards this was chalk and a blackboard. But it was a WOW factor for the time. Ok, we were now leading the industry…take the little wins, they add up.
Now the big job, we assessed the industry looking into every solution available to capture data; we analysed their strengths and weaknesses and field tested the solutions available. All the time, we were learning and feeding this information back into R&D (a grand name for David). We learnt to be explicit in what we needed. We knew the industry and what solutions would give us the competitive advantage. We changed direction all the time trialling Interactive Voice Response (IVR), online questionnaires, web input and PDA entry to mention a few. We organised our findings and decided to adopt different solutions to industry wide problems.
We understood that minimising the cost of conducting retail visits was very relevant to our clients. They wanted the latest technology solutions, but they also wanted to stretch their budget as much as possible. To this end, we decided to deploy IVR for high volume retail site visits with minimal amounts of data being collected, this would include simple questions such as Q1 – was the point of sale placed as detailed in the brief? This was relatively cheap to administer and provided the necessary information to measure the success of the campaign.
When there was a need for large volumes of data, this was handled by a PDA or online data entry. As no one else had designed a solution for this purpose we started by taking an off the shelf piece of software, designed for Customer relationship management (CRM), bought for a few pounds. We then used the product for a totally different purpose than its design; to sync data digitally from field based personnel to a reporting tool designed in-house. This data was then analysed by a data team setup for the purpose. As well as having access to this information online, clients would receive a timely report in a pre-agreed format detailing responses to ‘potentially’ hundreds of questions.
This information was designed to be of strategic value as well as operational. One client stated that the report was seen live ‘online’ at the company head office in Japan during their last visit. Back in the early 2000s this was amazing!
That said, the system was cumbersome to manage, a nightmare to create questionnaires and was totally infuriating to find any mistakes when things didn’t go to plan. But I thank the developers for having the foresight to build in the database editor and allowing customers to play with the product. This piece of software gave us an environment to learn, relearn and repeat. All the tacit knowledge gained was then fed into our software development team who not only created outstanding data capture software, but back office management systems designed to improve the actual delivery of the core service.
It was at this point that we realised that such software would act as a barrier to entry to new entrants. The expected service levels required by clients using field marketing services had moved on; clients now required high quality reporting as standard. Many of the established firms who had failed to keep up had either been taken over or gone out of business. It was also evident that new entrants were fewer compared to previous years. The question which still remains unanswered is ‘did we start this shift?’ or ‘was the industry moving on already?’ We will never know the answer to that question, but I like to think that we played an instrumental part in the maturing of the UK field marketing industry
So, were we visionary, yes I suppose we were; we challenged the status quo of the field marketing industry. We used our tacit knowledge and understanding to manage the finer aspects and became renowned for leading edge software, information presentation and analysis, even to the point where a worldwide competitor was stated as saying “We need to have reporting systems as good as infinite”; An accolade indeed.
Did being Visionary make a differeonce in the long-term? Yes I believe so. The basis of this tool led to development of algorithms integrated into the software, which measure performance, learn from the decisions made by using current thinking such as ‘Return on Investment’, recommend improvements on future choices and report in real time. Did we see this requirement coming? Yes we did. So I guess being visionary is part of infinite’s DNA and something it should look to nurture as the organisation grows.
Nigel Stone – December 2015
*All comments are based on my personal experiences and given freely. That said, you need to make your own choices. I can’t and wont accept liability for you employing any recommendations. Business is all about risk. It’s your choice.
Nigel stone has, over the last fifteen years, started, led, consulted and nurtured both UK and European businesses to achieve quite outstanding results.