Being a communications company during the middle of a pandemic that kept friends, families and loved ones apart physically put O2 in a unique position. “Demand for our voice services shot up by sixty percent initially,” Bibby recalled. “We had to double our network capacity to address that demand.”

In order to ensure that it was serving customers and their needs during the unfolding crisis, O2 used customer data to identify different demographics that it could help by providing something extra. “We used our data to identify those customers on prepay who normally top up in retail,” Bibby said, “and we gave them extra minutes, because with lockdown, all of a sudden they could find themselves short of data or minutes and not able to top up.

“We did the same thing for pay monthly customers, so we ensured that every pay monthly customer had unlimited minutes.” O2 also identified customers who were abroad and using roaming charges, and credited them back the charges, understanding that they might have been stranded as lockdown hit and thus unable to avoid using roaming on their phones for an extended period of time.

Taking things one step further, O2 sought to prioritise and help its customers who were NHS staff by giving them additional minutes and data so that they didn’t have to worry about topping up – and also “handed over the keys” to the O2 Arena in April for NHS staff to use as a training facility for the new Nightingale Hospital.

The repurposed O2 arena, which was redeployed as an NHS training facility in April (Image: O2)

Staying agile in the face of changing demand

In order to keep pace with rapidly changing circumstances during the lockdown, O2 found itself bringing some new technological innovations into play. At the beginning of lockdown, it had closed all 450 of its physical branches, but “almost from the moment we shut those stores, we started planning how we were going to reopen them – even though we didn’t know when that would be.”

Two pieces of technology that helped facilitate the safe reopening of O2’s stores were Qudini, a queue management system, to manage the flow of customers into its stores; and “digital guru” appointments for those customers who were unable to make it into a physical branch.

These solutions were so effective that O2 deployed them in turn for its business customers, which included retail businesses, supermarkets, healthcare providers, stadia and more – all businesses that needed to manage the flow of large numbers of customers.

Internally, O2 also had to reinvent a number of its processes in order to be more flexible and agile. “We quickly worked in a much more dynamic way,” said Bibby. For example, the board instituted daily calls “so that we could very quickly respond to the changes that were impacting us.”

As Chief Marketing Officer, Bibby convened a cross-functional team combining staff from the marketing, sales, customer service, finance, legal and corporate communications teams in order to allow O2 to more nimbly respond to the high volume of requests it was receiving – including from the government, which needed to obtain contact information in order to communicate with people.

“We were really making changes so much on the fly that we had to work in a completely different way – the only way I can describe that is, in fact, ‘agile’,” she said.

O2 also adopted virtual communications tools, such as Microsoft Teams, across the company, and began implementing more frequent “touchpoints” with senior staff. CEO Mark Evans held a weekly live session with the entire company that the board members would join to give updates. Bibby also convened a weekly marketing-focused session, ‘Natter with Nina’ – “quite informal but designed to keep everybody in touch with what was happening”.

“That was quite different – we weren’t used to having that frequent touchpoint with all of our teams,” Bibby admitted. “But I think that really worked very well.”

Connecting with customers

Needless to say, O2 needed to be flexible and inventive in its approach to its external communication as well. O2’s marketing department adopted a more agile way of working with its agencies, organising cross-functional teams that would allow the company to pivot its marketing and customer communication. The brand initially had a major out-of-home campaign planned, “and we couldn’t do that because nobody was outdoors any more.”

“We had to very quickly pivot our entire communications plan,” Bibby recounted. “And also the messaging, because what we were going to say was actually no longer relevant for our consumers.

“The only way we could respond to that was by standing up these very agile, dynamic teams – and really adopting a ‘war room’ approach.”

O2 intends to keep this “always on” and “dynamic” approach to communications planning and working with its marketing agencies going forward, “because that really worked for us”.

Bibby also stressed the importance of relevance and empathy for brands as they connect with consumers going into 2021.

“The world has changed,” she said. “It’s the job of marketeers to understand how the world is changing – and more importantly, how consumers are reacting to those changes.

“It’s absolutely vital that brands are authentic and purposeful in terms of how they’re responding. We have to be meaningful, we have to build trust – now more than ever, consumers need to have trust in the brands that they’re buying from. Our role as marketeers is to ensure that we’re trustworthy and authentic brands – and that we’re communicating with our customers in a relevant and empathetic way.”

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