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Case study: developing a direct-to-consumer model for a global education business

Case study: developing a direct-to-consumer model for a global education business

Adam Gates, Head of Odgers Connect, talks to independent consultant Julia Woodham-Smith about her recent Odgers Connect assignment at a global education company 

As one of the world’s largest global education partnership businesses operating via third-party agents, any notion of organisational change would be a huge undertaking. However, the company wanted to create a direct-to-consumer model that would streamline their operations globally and ensure that both the company’s messaging and customer service was consistent across the brand.

With this in mind, the organisation had developed a pilot model that they had begun to roll-out in China, however this had not landed as effectively as it could have due to a relative lack of consumer experience in the business. The organisation therefore required someone with knowledge of the Chinese consumer market to conduct a deep-dive review of this early-stage concept from a strategic point-of-view and provide an answer as to what would need to be done in order to make the new model work over the medium and long-term, and across other locations.

The company needed an experienced independent consultant with relevant experience that not only aligned to the organisation’s needs but would also be sensitive to China’s business and consumer climate. As a result, they turned to Odgers Connect for an independent consultant with previous experience in China and who boasted a consulting toolkit specific to the consumer retail space.

The company appointed Julia Woodham-Smith, an experienced independent strategic advisor and director with extensive knowledge of the retail and consumer sectors, and who had previously developed similar direct-to-consumer propositions for businesses. Importantly, Julia had also founded a business in the 1990s with Chinese supply partners and also operated a small consulting network that had partners in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Both provided her with a strong understanding of the local business environment and meant she came equipped with a network of existing business and government agency relationships.

“I started by interviewing the CEO and other senior leaders across London and China in order to get a complete picture of the problem,” Julia told me. “Armed with a large volume of data and a diagnostic of the problem I then conducted a ‘road-trip’ to interview on-site operations managers.”

Julia also interviewed students to find out what they wanted from the programme, as well as university staff and managers in the supply chain in order to identify problems and areas of improvement. “This flagged two areas that needed addressing; customer experience and the built retail environment,” Julia said.

With this information in hand, Julia reported back to the Board and senior leadership team on the aspects of the pilot that were working, and those aspects that required further attention. She outlined the steps that would need to be taken in order to transition the pilot from working concept to complete implementation and business as usual. Bringing this all together, she developed a roadmap outlining the next-steps the company would need to take for the direct-to-consumer model to work over the medium and long-term. This roadmap not only covered product development and life-cycle, but took into account new skillsets and positions that would need to be introduced, as well as how the new proposition should be marketed to customers.

“From a cultural perspective, the company wasn’t used to thinking about their product from a consumer point of view,” Julia said. “The concept of customer-experience and directly managing consumers meant a mind-set shift that required hands-on coaching for many of the staff in China.”

Through Julia’s recommendations, her roadmap and coaching, the company have successfully implemented a direct-to-consumer model. This has centralised their operations and customer-facing offering, ensured greater control over brand management and brought a consistency of service to all of its retail environments.

Subsequent feedback from the client, including the CEO and one of the co-founders has been positive. Julia’s assessment enabled the business to accelerate its thinking and put a consumer lens on the initiative. In addition, Julia was able to provide an accurate gestation period for the rollout, therefore managing shareholders’ and stakeholders’ expectations. Finally, and often most importantly, Julia was a “breeze to get on with” and worked seamlessly with the local teams as well as the executive leadership.

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