Technology, simplicity and culture: Behind the scenes of Sensis’ digital transformation
- 18 December, 2014 14:09
John Allan, CEO, Sensis
Gone are the days when Australian SMBs could place a listing in their local White or Yellow Pages and call it marketing. Thanks to the Internet, digital disruption and mobility, they now need to navigate a complex raft of search, social and digital advertising options, all while keeping an eye on a growing pool of digitally savvy domestic and global competitors.
That same digital force impacting its customer base has also triggered a rebrand and two-year operational and technology transformation program at Australia’s local search, directories and media company, Sensis.
According to its CEO, John Allan, Sensis is the largest marketing services company in Australia, working with more than 300,000 organisations. Having spent most of its 120-year heritage in print directories, it’s today become a predominantly digital business, with more than half of revenue derived from digital products and services.
“We’re making headway with our digital agenda, but there’s a lot more to do,” he told CMO. A big emphasis is on skills. Last month, Sensis appointed Stephen Palmer as its first White Pages executive general manager, one of several roles integral to digital growth, Allan said.
Palmer was most recently with technology startup, TripChum, a digital platform connecting travellers with destination experts, and previously held the global publisher’s role at Lonely Planet, where he assisted bringing the travel books and magazine publisher into the digital era.
“We have big digital ambitions for the White Pages business and we needed a leader to help us navigate that,” Allan said.
More significantly, the appointment is one of up to 70 roles Allan is looking to fill by February next year. The company has been recruiting for digital product managers, designers in user experience and interfaces for Web, engineers, account and sales managers, a digital product director, head of marketing for the White Pages business, and a range of roles linked to data utilisation and mobile interaction, he said.
“Today, we have our online directory businesses including Yellow Pages, White Pages, Truelocal and Whereis, but we’re also the largest SEM organisation in the country in terms of client’s revenue,” he said. “We have a large SEO business, and we’re a large provider of websites, both building and hosting. We also have a large social media practices managing social media assets on a client’s behalf.”
Several newly created roles are for Found, Sensis’ digital agency, which launched in September. At present, the division has 40 customers and 25 staff, and Allan intended to scale that significantly over the next two years.
“As we look forward, we need to bring in people with these digital skillsets to help build that part of the business,” he said. “It’s these services that are underpinning our growth.”
Developing a digital strategy
While the recruitment drive is vast, it’s just one initiative in a much wider digital transformation agenda and investment by Sensis’ new owner, Platinum Equity. Back in early 2013, Sensis took the first steps towards bolstering its digital strategy by partnering with brand consultancy, Interbrand.
“There’s no doubt the perception around the Sensis brand was strongly linked to print heritage and we were keen to reposition in the eyes of staff first and customers second,” Allan said.
“The next stage was to work that brand through. We worked on the new-look brand until March, then presented that to the new owners in April. It took until August to work through all the components of the change.”
On 6 August, Sensis relaunched the brand to staff. “With that had to come new vision, purpose, a set of values and pointers for staff to the investments we are prepared to make into that positioning,” Allan said.
“We have about 2000 employees, and we knew if we could engage those people with the new brand, they would then engage with our 300,000 customer base. That is how it’s played out. Since August, we’ve been working to take the brand to our customer base and responses have been really positive.”
Supporting the brand relaunch is a program known internally as the ‘Sensis Digital Foundation’, aimed at driving simplification and fostering more rapid innovation using technology. The two-year transformation program, which was approved in July, will see the majority of Sensis’ business technology applications and middleware move to the cloud.
While he wouldn’t disclose the price tag, Allan said the overhaul represented a “very large investment” and required extensive work testing and understanding technology capabilities. Moving to the cloud was about gaining access to best-of-breed technologies while improving service capabilities and gaining faster speed to market, he said.
“The simplification part of the program can’t be underestimated in this process,” Allan continued. “It will help us improve our services to clients. We have terrific products, but our ability to meet the speed of the market has been sometimes hampered by internal technologies and complexity.
“We’re keen to resolve that over the next two years and move through the market a lot faster than we have to date. That is a ‘must win’ for the Sensis business.”
Technologies being rolled out include Salesforce for CRM systems, Zuora for cloud-based billing, Cloudsense for workflow and product and pricing in the cloud, and Marketo for marketing and lead management through the business. These will be integrated with Sensis’ Amdocs platform, used to manage its print business.
As a way of piloting these technologies, Sensis launched a range of new social products last year using mini versions of these platforms.
“The key was that it allowed us to get into market very quickly,” Allan said. As an example, Sensis was able to launch a range of products off the back of meetings with Facebook in six weeks. “That wasn’t possible on our old platform,” he added.
The recently launched ‘Skip’ service was also the result of this pilot, Allan said. The service allows consumers to order a coffee and food and pay for these in advance using their credit card, skipping queues when they go to collect them.
“For SMBs it’s a labour-saving device, and helps them manage cash, but it also provides them with data on their users for the first time,” Allan explained. “It’s a SaaS model; SMB pays a subscription fee to have the service. That’s still in startup phase, but consumers and businesses are loving it. “With this new technology platform, our ability to scale these types of products will exponentially increase. It means we can engage in faster innovation and getting to market.”
Sensis will spend the next year migrating to the new platform, and Allan expected all major parts of the business to be working in the cloud within two years.
“It was a huge decision and took us a while to land at that,” he said. “We are not trailblazers in this, this is tried and tested technologies. But they will unlock an immense amount of value for us.”
Up next: How Sensis transformed its culture to support a digital-first customer approach
The Sensis Digital Foundation program is not, however, purely an IT transformation initiative. It’s a business transformation and simplification program.
“It’s an opportunity to simplify, improve processes, take out inefficiencies and optimise at the same time,” Allan said. “There has been a big push in the lead in to the technology deployment on that.” Simplification was one of the core values presented in the brand relaunch in August.
“As Sensis grows up digitally, we have learnt a lot about what to do and not do. We need to ensure complexity doesn’t get carried for too far, and for too long,” Allan said. “The critical factor is engagement – the whole organisation, from the CEO to the receptionist, has to be on this simplification journey, otherwise we risk not achieving the levels of success we want.”
To help get there, all employees were put through a one-day training program to explain the new digital strategy and brand values. Importantly, half that time was spent explaining how Sensis planned to execute these.
“It was an incredible investment to get people aligned,” Allan continued. “That was a pivotal point in our transition, and the energy that’s come out of that is amazing.
“When I joined two years ago, the print business was going through challenges and the business was shocked at its status and what had occurred in a relatively short period of time. Getting the team reignited took a lot of work. And naturally, we need to bring in additional skills to the business, attracting top talent digitally.”
In addition, Sensis is working hard to keep innovation at the forefront of business. Allan said this was especially critical given the crowd of digital-first startups and competitors disrupting the directories and marketing services space.
In the last two years, the company has invested in new innovation skills and brought in design consultancy, IDEO, 18 months ago to kickstart a design thinking capability for some of its products. Today, Sensis is using design thinking in other areas of product development, drawing on both internal skills as well as external help as required. Allan said the ‘Skip’ product came out of that early work.
“The White Pages started in 1880 and has continued to innovate over its history,” Allan claimed. “We were the first online directory globally in 1994 with White Pages and Yellow Pages, and there’s always been that focus on innovation. We need to keep doing that, and having the right people join us is critical.”
A recent decision to decentralise marketing and give product managers in each division end-to-end responsibility, from product development through to deployment and marketing, has furthered this approach, according to Allan.
“Since we have made that change, we’ve seen terrific alignment and a cross-skilling of marketing people really understanding the product side, and product people understanding the marketing side,” he said.
“It is the right model for us, but it means you have to have very good and capable marketers. “
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