We are immensely proud of what we have accomplished as an online appliance retailer, in particular, the great service we provide our consumer and business customers. But like every business across the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant we have had to take a close look at the way we serve our customers in order to continue to meet their expectations in these unprecedented times.
Society and business have been unpicked by the pandemic and are now being rebuilt so that the way many businesses operate is unrecognisable compared with the beginning of the year.
The past few months have certainly been exceptional in terms of the changes in the online buying habits of consumers and businesses. The team at AO Business has witnessed how our business customers have embraced online – initially out of necessity and then of convenience.
We have coined a phrase to describe how rapidly the shift to online has been: ‘five years into five weeks’. The pandemic has certainly accelerated the shift to online buying, which has been happening over the past 15 years.
We have always been an online business, but beyond the initial online purchase, the AO ‘ecosystem’ allows us to control the whole process, from delivering using our own logistics fleet, to recycling old appliances and packaging through our recycling plant. We do not have to rely on anyone else to deliver for our customers; it is in our hands.
We have utilised this for our property business customers, such as housebuilders, developers, student accommodation operators and housing associations. The proposition that we have for housebuilders is frankly just what we give to our retail customers. Currently, most of the housebuilder market involves scheduling deliveries weeks in advance, whereas we are extremely simple: order it before noon and you can have it anywhere in the country the next day and we will install it when we get there.
People have opened their eyes and realised there is a faster, better, cheaper way of doing things. And once you have found a faster, better, cheaper way to do something, you do not tend to go back to the slower, clumsier and more expensive way of doing it
For AO, that is all just normal business, though, of course, even for us it has not been business-as-usual over the past few months. However, the AO ‘ecosystem’ has stood us in good stead during the pandemic and allowed us to keep operating and ensuring our business customers are ready for the reopening of the economy.
We did not shut our doors during the crisis, and continued to support our business customers by raising quotations and helping them place orders.
When the extent of the crisis became evident, our first priority was to protect our people and customers so we could continue to deliver safely.
This meant enabling those who could work from home to do so and, for our front-line works, putting in place new ways of working and kit so that we could maintain social distancing in our operation from the warehouse to delivery. We turned off all the most essential installation services, but gave our drivers and engineers discretion to help vulnerable customers safely.
Our whirlwind experience during the pandemic has allowed us to reflect on our business and taught us some valuable lessons. There are also things we think the commercial property industry could take away from our experience.
For starters, the business-to-business world can often lose sight of the importance of customer service and is too often about who is right and who is wrong. Compare that with the business-to-consumer world. If a consumer finds themselves in an argument with a business, they will gladly spend their money elsewhere.
One of the great things about our business culturally is that it is completely customer-centred. As far as we are concerned, whether we are dealing with a consumer, site manager or developer, their requirement is the same: they expect a high-quality service. Our business-to-business operation delivers the same high service we provide to consumers. We have not missed a single day’s delivery and we still deliver to every UK postcode seven days a week.
At the same time, we recognise that the needs of the average business are different from the needs of the average consumer. So we have opened up an online portal specifically for our business customers and have set up a dedicated call centre for them, too.
There has been a lack of disruption in the business-to-business world – people do what they have always done. Compare that with the business-to-consumer world and think how quickly Uber, Deliveroo or JustEat were adopted. When consumers find a better way to do things, they adopt it very aggressively.
Selling a new way of doing things to the business-to-business world does not always hit the mark because people will tell you they are busy with what they are doing, and it is easier to stick with the old ways. I think the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted people to find ways of doing things that they had not previously considered because, suddenly, half their supply chain is closed.
People have opened their eyes and realised there is a faster, better, cheaper way of doing things. And once you have found a faster, better, cheaper way to do something, you do not tend to go back to the slower, clumsier and more expensive way of doing it.
Lessons will continue to be learned as we all adapt to the ongoing situation. The team at AO Business is working with property customers to find smarter and quicker ways to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic. We look forward to sharing these with you in the future.
• Online electricals retailer AO.com was founded in 2000 by John Roberts following a £1 bet in a Bolton pub.
• Formerly known as Appliances Online, the company rebranded in 2013 to become AO.com and the current logo was born.
• In February 2014, the company floated on the London Stock Exchange as AO World.
• AO.com stocks more than 9,000 products and delivers millions of electricals every year from its 740,000 sq ft logistics warehouse in Crewe