Disrupt, develop, deliver: Big lessons from small business

Over the past four months, Australia Post’s Dirk van Lammeren has chatted at length with more than 70 small business customers. He wants to know what frustrates them – and what Australia Post can do to smooth out the speed bumps which is all part of their entrepreneurial approach to helping small business customers flourish in the eCommerce boom.

“It’s about listening to customers and working on their pain points,” says van Lammeren.

“We start with a real customer problem, find a specific opportunity, fix it in small steps, and work from the outside in with the customer involved.”

For example, online retailers told Australia Post that their customers wanted a “scan event” as soon as their parcel was ready to be sent, letting them know it was on the way.

This happens when a retailer lodges parcels across the counter, but not when they post them in a street posting box. Many small businesses are too busy to visit a post office during business hours.

To address this, Australia Post has recently launched a new MyPost Business app on iOS that offers a do-it-yourself scan event for Australia Post products with a scannable barcode.

Creating an experience

That’s just one example of how Australia Post is listening to customers to design solutions that make everyday jobs easier. Since joining Australia Post five years ago, Dirk has seen the business transform in response to external forces so it remains sustainable into the future.

The organisation wants to live and breathe high-quality experiences for their 3 million small business customers.

“Customers go for frictionless experiences – they buy an experience, not a product,” van Lammeren says. “We want to get to know them better and create a better experience for them.”

Entrepreneurial approach

Australia Post has faced disruption over its entire 207-year history. Each new invention ­– telegrams, cars, telephones, faxes and the internet – has had a profound effect on its business.

“We’re in an era driven by disruption,” says van Lammeren, adding that the average lifespan of a big company on the S&P 500 Index in the United States in the 1920s was 67 years; now it’s 15 years.

“It’s going faster, which means we have to adapt even quicker.”

For Australia Post – and many other large, legacy businesses – the solution is to disrupt themselves. “If we don’t do it, someone else will,” van Lammeren says.

“That requires courage and taking everyone on the journey; staff, our shareholder, customers, and major stakeholders. I think we’ve done that well. There’s an enormous appetite to change and capture the world of eCommerce.”

Technology-driven disruption creates big opportunities for small, nimble players – and for large organisations that are prepared to embed a similar entrepreneurial approach into their DNA.

The starting point for Australia Post, with 36,000 employees and over 4000 retail outlets, has been to organise itself into segments, including small business and consumer, to flesh out exactly what customers want. Van Lammeren’s small business team focuses on customers who are in the idea, startup or growth phase of their development, ranging from sole eBay sellers trading from home, to well-established online retailers.

Instead of using the old-style approach of scoping out a business case over many months before designing a new customer centric product, the new approach borrows much from the customers it is trying to help. Think adaptability and flexibility, addressing customer pain points, finding a niche need, and experimenting and learning fast in the market.

“Small companies don’t have the legacy issues we have; they start fresh, work from the inside out and fix real customer problems,” van Lammeren says.

Information spurs ideas

On a large wall in Australia Post’s customer contact centre in Melbourne, a word cloud captures the most commonly used words customers use interacting with Australia Post through their website, Twitter, phone calls and other media. Staff can keep an eye on emerging trends and customer problems.

Australia Post also gathers information by visiting small business incubators to talk to current and former customers of Australia Post, as well as holding 24-hour “hackathons” where small teams immerse themselves in customer problems to suggest solutions.

A recent example saw a team of three employees who spent six weeks immersed at a business incubator addressing a problem customers are having with protecting their personal information online.

Through direct testing with customers, the team found that their initial idea and assumptions did not resonate. They went back to the drawing board until they found a solution that would help customers solve this problem. Australia Post is now developing an app in its own product accelerator to help customers manage their online identity.

“It’s the same methodology that small businesses use – quick ideation, test with customers, roll it out,” van Lammeren says. “It shifts our culture when we see how fast we are able to deploy and deliver stuff.”

Enabling innovation

Australia Post is learning plenty from small business, but van Lammeren emphasises that it’s a two-way exchange. The team is also keen to foster entrepreneurship and participation in eCommerce, by using Australia Post’s resources and size to support its customers.

“We can give small business big business capabilities,” he says, explaining that monster online retailers such as Amazon and ASOS are focused on delivering fabulous customer experiences.

“By leveraging our network, small businesses can act like a big businesses.”

That might be about making parcel deliveries easier with over 240 24/7 parcel lockers nationwide and 26,000 tracking devices. Or it might be about Australia Post establishing platforms such as Farmhouse that launched three years ago to help farmers sell their produce online.

Other initiatives include funding two places for start-ups in the University of Melbourne’s accelerator program and piloting a workspace in Geelong called the Australia Post Small Business Hive that offers start-ups a co-working space to help them connect with other local businesses, and provides professional facilities such as meeting rooms, IT support and business coaching for members at reasonable rates.

“We want to help the smaller punter understand what online selling can do, and help them to start a business and take it to the next level,” van Lammeren says.

Facing forward

As for the future, van Lammeren says the constant feedback from Australia Post’s small business customers is that they are time poor and keen to free up precious hours to work on developing their business rather than on administration.

“Those are the services they tell us they want,” van Lammeren says. “And we are uniquely positioned to help with that.”

For example, Australia Post has just launched a dedicated support service for small business in response to feedback that they want to be treated like a business not a consumer.

“We are making the customer central to everything we do. It’s brought a lot of people out of their comfort zone, and that’s a good thing.

“We are on the journey and we’re making very good progress.”

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