Business Update: An Interview with Operations Director Rob Stevens

Hi, my name is Helen and I have recently joined Optix Solutions as an intern for the summer. It’s definitely been a weird experience and something I would never had done if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. It has affected me with my studies as being at university I had to leave early to self-isolate at home with my family. As a marketing student I did wonder how this had affected businesses and especially how they are managing to market themselves through this tough time. I had so many questions about this and especially how digital marketing will be exploited at this time, that I recently managed to get some time with our Operations Director, Rob, to discuss this and discuss Optix re-opening their office space.

So, when is the office re-opening?
Rob: The physical office was closed on the 23rd due to government regulations, however that was not our plan! As an agency we never stopped working as we were lucky that we already had home working infrastructure and tools in place, however it was shock that it became a legal requirement so quickly. Our staff are trained and setup to work from home and were willing to carry on which made the transition a lot easier and effective. We had spent a lot of time as a Board planning for Covid but due to the office being closed we could not follow through with our original wishes. This taught us a lesson that you can never accurately predict or be fully in control of situations in business. Especially so during quarantine, there is so much information that changes in real time that is impossible to stay ahead and hard to digest it before it all changes again as it was often a case of waiting for the news at 5pm to what was happening next.

Hanging out in the office pre-covid19

 

These are unprecedented and challenging times that we’re all living through and in the 25 years Rob has worked in business he said he’s never experienced anything like this, where rules and regulations change so rapidly.

Rob: Some of our staff felt anxious that Covid-19 presented a risk which was too high to go into the office, even before it was closed due to regulations, however others were comfortable so would pick and choose when they came in. Due to the tools, people and type of business Optix didn’t have to close and adapted to home working really quickly, within one day!
Due to their clients being other businesses, Optix was very aware that their customers were going be affected hugely by this change, some even had to close because of the type of business they were! Therefore, they decided to come up with ways to support their clients.

How have you supported your customers?
Rob: We took a decision very early on to focus on retaining and securing our relationships, so we agreed to offer payment holidays to all our clients by ringing everyone up and negotiating. As a gesture of good will we have offered part-payment or full-payment holidays, so we are hoping the contracts will be starting back up again soon as we haven’t been able to maintain the levels of revenue we’d built prior to Covid-19.

On top of the things we did to support our clients, we then had to look for support ourselves. This included our successful application for the CIBILS (Corona Virus Business Interruption Loan Scheme) loan scheme, which has helped us out by providing what we need financially in the last three months.

Have you managed to keep all your customers then?
Rob: Yes in the vast majority of cases we have, we’ve even managed to win some new ones as well. Now we’re working closely to help our clients who are trying to see which direction their new strategies will take them. So much has changed since Covid-19 that we’re recommending a full overview before anyone commences further marketing activities. It’s not the same world we live in now as it was 3-4 months ago and it’s important to recognise this.

Some customers may not be able to re-start or to come back yet, but some may want to increase their marketing due to everyone being online more. We’ve seen how many customers pivot internally and have a new product or service they want to launch, that fits in with the world right now. It’s interesting as we’ve actually won new customers who’ve done exactly that. We’ve had customers come to us that we haven’t had previously and they’ve been particularly fortunate due to the sector, product or service they have as they are in demand such as food manufactures, deliveries and alcohol manufactures changing onto hand sanitizer.

When you open the office, what precautions are you going to take to keep everyone safe?
Rob: We opened on the 29th June after disinfecting and deep cleaning everything within the HQ. We provided each staff member with their own personalised PPE equipment and sectioned out the desks in the office, as well as assigning each desk to one person to make sure we follow the 2m rule and have signs up explaining rules. We have sorted out all the communal rooms and reduced all these risk areas; we’ve also had to limit the number of people allowed in the office at one time to 10 so we can safely distance. The staffed and been trained and a set of procedures and guidelines have been produced on how to stay safe in the office.

To look up any information that you think your business may want on how to stay safe during offices reopening, look at the health and safety executive website. This website has all the information you may need if there’s something you want to know or just something, you’re not 100% sure about, this website should have all the up to date information you require.

How are you making sure that all your clients and staff are comfortable with all these changes that you’re making?
Rob: we have Slack (cloud-based chat tool) send our staff a daily questionnaire to keep up to date on how they are that day; we also have monthly more in-depth survey. I also try to contact them twice a week to have an update conversation focused on their wellbeing. Meetings are held monthly to get the group together and encourage discussion.

The team on Teams

 

Optix believe communication is key and I think that is so important when running a business especially at this time, to focus on wellbeing and recognise that mental health has been affected now, so, you need to be making sure your staff are okay and coping as well as can be. Businesses have had to adapt the way they communicate as in person meetings have not been allowed for months, so Teams and Zoom have been very useful for Optix specifically. They also try to steer away from emails as they can build up easily and it’s challenging to wake up to 100+ emails in the morning.

Rob: As for clients, we do the most we can by keeping in contact and trying to help them improve their digital skills. We offer our digital academy free to selected businesses and clients, which helps teach them key digital marketing skills that all mid-level marketing managers would need to know. As for others who may have lost their jobs, we are looking at providing a beginner level introduction to digital marketing to help maybe get jobs in this sector as it will be one of the few sectors that is growing right now. On top of this we are looking at providing an advance level course as well.

Optix pitched their course to the government but other businesses such as Google also had the same idea, so they decided to do it for the local Exeter area instead. There were around 80,000 entries in the government scheme, and Optix got through to the final stage!

What’s your opinion on the Covid situation, on businesses and individuals?
Rob: I can only really talk on behalf of our business and my family personally, but I think we’ve been incredibly fortunate due to us being a digital marketing company and having a committed team of people and good customers. We have diverse customer base, so we saw some customers struggling and some thriving! It affected us badly but not as bad as others in sectors such as hospitality and tourism. Because we’ve been running for over 20 years, we’ve built up a strong customer base and are in a strong financial position! It was hard to get the CBILS loan but in the end, we were successful and we’re very grateful for that.

Personally, Rob talked about being lucky about the area we live being beautiful and still being able to afford to put food on the table etc. He said, and I totally agree, that it makes you appreciate the smaller things in life such as seeing friends or family and being able to give them a hug. It’s time we should use to reflect on what’s really important in life and seek to find a better balance if that’s what’s needed.
Rob: It’s interesting to see businesses really reflect on their impact on the environment and society as a whole which is such a positive thing to come out of this! Business cannot just be about profit and growth, it’s got to evolve and develop a social awareness, it’s about connections and relationships with people, as the saying the goes “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”! If people like you and your businesses, you can survive the most difficult times. I think it’s also about consistency and clear messaging, when you have a creative team like us, we have no shortage of ideas! We love to come together to think of new concepts and services, tapping into the things we all know are still there and focusing on your own strengths. Many businesses are selling more direct to consumer. As e-commerce has grown, businesses and services need to think about their digital strategy, people need to be able find and contact you easily. There needs to be a quick, clear and easy pathway for customers to experience your business.

Does your office try to reduce their co2 emissions and do you think this has been affected by Covid?
Rob: Definitely! There is an obvious decrease the usage of cars so the air pollution will be lower right now, and people can get from A to B quicker due to less cars on the roads queuing. As a business we always encourage our team to cycle or walk into work, so we have about a third of people doing but we could do more, I could and should do more! I predict that the public’s appetite for travel will be reduced after this as people are using Zoom and Teams to connect so there will be less desire to meet in person.

Do you think this Zoom phenomenon will carry on after quarantine is over?
Rob: Yes, I think we should encourage people to work from home. As a planet and human race, we need to look at new ways of working and reduce our carbon footprint. The evidence for accelerating global warming is substantial and honestly quite frightening! As a business we went back to our team and said you can come in whenever you like but there won’t be a requirement for you to come in every day, because the last three months has taught us we can be as, if not more, effective with the team working from home. This has opened people’s mind to more digital conferences, whereas before they wouldn’t have been as keen. We have made sure to over-deliver for our clients who stuck with us, and therefore didn’t furlough anyone straight away which I think the staff really appreciated. We’ve still had to make changes to our business, and we will possibly have to make more dramatic ones in the future, but nobody has a crystal ball so we must wait and see how the economy goes.

How have you made use of your time during lockdown?
Rob: Because we kept the staff in place, we have been able to spend the time working on improvement projects within the company, focused on adding more value to clients. We decided to invest in our staff and went on a process of self-improvement. We’ve looked at our marketing, sales and operational strategy, we’ve come out with new products such as the academy and Optix TV and others that I can’t talk about because it confidential! We’ve basically been busy investing in developing our staff and clients to make sure we come back as a better business than when we went into this as. It was a scary risk to take but we felt it’s the right thing to do.

Do you think this will change the way you do business in the future?
Rob: Yes definitely. The operating plan we had agreed back in October/November has gone out the window completely! The idea now is to stay positive and find out where we add the most value. So, we’ve been challenging ourselves to think of our clients and the team we have, and we then show where we add more value for our clients. I think what’s important for everybody is to reset because you can’t go back. I think what we’re realising is the measures we’ve got regarding social distancing are going to be around for months if not longer, so what we’re saying to our clients is, help us help you with your strategy and understand where you add the most value to your own customers and we can help you get there. That’s what we do, we’re an enabler for other businesses to help you get where you want to be.


It was interesting to hear how even as a marketing business; Optix have had to adapt their day to day tasks to fit with the current situation. I would like to thank Rob for giving up his time to answer my questions because it definitely helped me understand more about how different businesses may be adapting to survive right now. It’s interesting to hear about how businesses are changing and what different approaches people may be taking. I personally think that the most productive thing businesses can be doing right now is working on themselves, especially if they have had to temporarily close. Being able to prove to customers that they have reflected on themselves and made use of this time will be really effective and build up the reputation of the business. I am aware of the devastation this pandemic is causing but, I think we must look at the positives as well and see the changes it’s having on our society and planet such as the impact on the environment. Rob very rightly pointed out, that our O2 emissions will have reduced significantly. As a planet we need to reflect on the positive impact that’s having and see what we can change going forward, that will help keep this up.

I would one hundred percent recommend others to reach out to businesses they’re interested in to see if they can gain work experience and to build up connections. It doesn’t take long to draft an email and reach out to several companies, if you do the work it will definitely pay off. Through talking to Rob and other members of the team at Optix, the main thing I learnt was to be constantly building up your network of people you know, whether this be through LinkedIn or emails or internships like mine; it is worth it as you never know what you might learn or who you will run into in the future.

Thanks for reading this blog post, I hope it’s given you more insight in how businesses are being affected and how Optix is adapting with the changes being made.

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