Aires, a corporate relocation company that works around the globe, has always, first and foremost, focused on customer service. But within the past five years, a few competitors popped up that marketed themselves as technology companies first.
“They made a big splash,” says CEO Bryan Putt. “Literally, it was all tech people with a small number of mobility-type people that helped them train the software and services. And they hit the market very fast and very hard.”
A good-looking technology platform that was brought to the market in a unique way forced Aires to sit back and evaluate.
“The market started to change quickly, and we had to step up and react,” he says.
Everybody gets excited about market disruptors, but it also can be motivating.
“We took the strategy, ‘OK, we need to disrupt the disruptors,’” Putt says. “So, it was very natural to start to focus energy into the technology and leverage that. It was a motivating factor for us to look at them and go, ‘OK, these guys are coming in and they’re saying they’re going to change the game, and an organization like ours is going to be a dinosaur. The gauntlet has been thrown down. We’re not dinosaurs. In fact, we’re pretty nimble and we’re coming back.’”
An investment in innovation
While the company, which employs more than 500 people and has annual revenue of $300 million, has invested heavily in technology since the late 1980s and viewed itself as being at the forefront of it, Aires had to get more aggressive about taking its existing software to market.
“With these competitors coming into the market, that became much more of a buzz term for clients (who asked), ‘Do you have these self-service tools available?’” Putt says. “And so, it really put us in a position where we had to start to lead with that in a lot of cases — or at least in certain instances in certain markets we wanted to lead with that.”
The marketing program had to be broader, so customers understood that Aires provided self-service tools and capabilities, along with expertise and strong customer service.
Aires also needed to ask: Did its technology need to be more innovative to put it ahead of the curve?
Aires didn’t want a matching product; it wanted a superior product that was still tied to customer service. The company needed to reimagine what it was doing and package it in a way that truly integrates people and technology. Aires’ services had to be as hands-off or as hands-on as the customer wanted.
While it’s impressive to arrange services through technology, behind every piece of software are experts who can step in to manage the relocation process, Putt says. If an employee is in Moscow trying to check into temporary housing and doesn’t have keys, you still need 24-hour customer service with a live person.
The company stepped up its IT investment to roughly 20 to 24 percent a year. Putt says that outpaces the annual growth rate — about 15 percent year over year — because Aires recognizes it’s a huge part of where the company needs to go. However, the overall spend hasn’t increased. It’s been a matter of taking efficiency gains and redistributing them into more technology-based initiatives.
Aires also started to evolve its processes for innovation using design thinking. It put together focus groups, which included customers, to assess the needs and find solutions for them. Then, it would go back to the market with prototypes to validate the direction.
“Rather than spending months and months building the killer app to unleash it on the world, and discover ‘Oh, this isn’t really what the client base wanted,’ we’ve included them in our processes,” Putt says.
Customers can validate the concept and development so when the product is rolled out, it’s what they were looking for, he says. It accomplishes what they need to accomplish, not Aires’ idea of what they need to accomplish.
Not only does it help Aires develop a better product in the long run, there’s pride in ownership, so customers feel like it’s their solution. It also has helped Aires build better relationships.
“We’ve probably got more people that are willing and wanting to get involved than we can actually bring in for all the workshops when we do them,” Putt says.