The one thing that stays the same is change: Reflections from Greater China
As Group General Manager for Visa Greater China, Shirley Yu is at the forefront of the recovery from the coronavirus crisis in China. Here, she shares insights about how the “new normal” is shaping payments and e-commerce, reveals how Visa is adapting to changing client needs and offers some timely lessons in leadership.
As a leader in business, Visa China’s Shirley Yu has had to make challenging decisions in response to the coronavirus crisis. But perhaps the most difficult was a personal one, when in January she flew to the US for Chinese New Year, visiting her adult son. By the time she was due to return, conditions at home had changed significantly. “My son was upset that I was coming back to China right away,” she remembers. “I said, ‘I'm the country manager and I have to be here - and even if I don't go to the office, it’s important that I am here.’ That was a tough decision, and I don't regret it.”
As Group General Manager for Visa Greater China, Shirley has been on the frontline of the business’s response to the fast-moving situation – and uniquely placed to identify the features characterising the country’s return to a “new normal”. “I’m responsible for Greater China, which is Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau,” she explains. “Visa has been in China for over 30 years. It’s a sizeable business, and we’re doing interesting things with our issuers and partners to better serve the China consumers.”
Of course, the immediate priority has been responding to the aftermath of the crisis in China. While Wuhan, as the focus of the pandemic, was “unsealed” with a lifting of travel restrictions for residents on April 8th, Shirley and colleagues have been returning to their office locations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou since early March but have only had 50 percent capacity at any one time. It’s a new way of working for them, from pre-registering to let the office building know which days they will be coming in, to temperature and masks checks on entry. “And when we have lunch, we avoid social gatherings - usually we’d have 10-plus people on a table. We’re being very cautious.”
What the recovery looks like
As to the shape of the recovery, Visa China has been tracking sectors’ performances closely. “We are evaluating several industries to see how the recoveries are doing,” says Shirley. “Overall, in terms of domestic consumption, based on the data indicators we are seeing about an 80 per cent recovery - but it really depends on the industry.” Airlines, hotels and restaurants remain impacted by ongoing travel restrictions, especially on international flights, one carrier-one city-per country-once-per week, and with a 75 per cent occupancy limit on flights, meaning their recovery appears more L-shaped. The retail, food and beverage, and apparel sectors are also “not quite back to normal”.
Encouragingly, other sectors are recovering more quickly than might be expected. For instance, housing, car sales and electronics in China saw a severe decline in transactions before recovering surprisingly strongly in March, Shirley reports – while some industries are actually seeing growth compared to before the crisis. “Certainly, food delivery, online education, gaming, anything that has to do online is probably showing 200 to 400% growth.”
As a general trend, where businesses have been able to offer customers e-commerce options to allow them to reduce face-to-face interactions, they have performed better. With China’s estimated 840 million-strong internet population already thought to account for more than 40% of the value of e-commerce transactions worldwide , that’s perhaps not surprising. And it’s a pattern repeated everywhere from restaurants to supermarkets – where stocking up may be becoming a new, established shopping behaviour, notes Shirley. “In the beginning we saw a spike up of e-commerce transactions because of panic buying, but gradually we're also seeing ‘pantry buying’.” Businesses are meanwhile driving e-commerce in innovative new ways. To promote its products, one Shanghai department store, for instance, has successfully re-positioned its sales assistants as live stream hosts. “One thing I've learned through this period,” says Shirley, “is that the companies who really use technology have been better positioned to weather the storm.”
In banking, the shift to online continues to drive clients’ focus on digital. Prior to the crisis, banks were already closing some branches as people visited them less often. Now, some are also adapting their plans to address increased home or shift working by employees. “I was talking to the CEO of a bank that has 2,000 employees in Shanghai,” says Shirley. ‘They firmly believed that employees had to come to the office to be productive – then noticed that people were being equally productive at home. The CEO is now thinking he could probably reduce the floor space and even change the layout to offer more meeting rooms. So a lot of vital industries are changing how they look.”
Adapting to meet new client needs
Supporting clients through all this, much of the focus for Visa China has been around sharing knowledge. Because its risk consultants typically work on site, it was initially unclear if clients would want to continue with that work, says Shirley – “but they actually accelerated projects because they want to know more about how they can manage and mitigate risk.” Visa employees have also been working with clients on approval authorisation rates, to ensure e-commerce transactions are not rejected unnecessarily. “Because of fraud, the banks are very cautious about the online transactions compared to face-to-face. But given that the e-commerce is really picking up right now, the banks have an accelerated focus – they really want something to get done very quickly.”
Visa China has also been working with clients to ensure new promotions – such as shopping offer platform integration and real-time message push – are targeted correctly, against a backdrop of wider efforts to boost consumer spending: as of April 8, nearly 50 cities in China had issued vouchers for residents to redeem at dining, shopping and other outlets. Shirley notes a lot of interest among clients in improving their own banking apps or making sure a website is “H5” - meaning it is optimised to be read by the in-app browser of one China’s popular messaging apps, such as WeChat.
“We're working with our clients very, very closely to make sure that they're spending their money wisely, based on the data and the analytical work that we've been doing,” says Shirley. “So the VCA (Visa Consulting & Analytics) team is really seeing such big demand, not just in consulting on risk and approval authorisation rates, but even in terms of: how do we take in details about their customer buying behaviour, and couple that with our market insights, to help clients achieve the right media campaigns or promotions.”
Making the new normal work
What is clear that as the landscape continues to change, the world that emerges will look different from before, from how consumers behave to how companies operate – Visa China among them. “We have not let the situation stop us from doing business,” says Shirley. “We have been very encouraged that we've been able to have video conferences with our clients, even with the government.” It’s noticeable that “working from home” is now being talked about in China as “working online”, she reflects. “I'll say, given the situation, we're doing the best job possible – deals are getting signed, we're getting projects kicked off. People have been pleasantly surprised at how productive we could be.”
To smooth this process, communication has been key, says Shirley, particularly as to best methods and scenario planning. “What has really helped is open communication, top to bottom as well as bottoms up, so we were able to understand the issues.” The other essential element has been flexibility – with a willingness to revisit decisions if necessary. “Be agile,” she advises, “because what you plan could be disrupted.” Which means a sense of humour has been helpful, as plans changed rapidly.
Looking forward, one thing Shirley is sure of is that change will continue to characterise the recovery around the world. “The way that people work, the way that people will spend and pay, as well as how they do business will change, for sure. I think people will come out of this thinking differently and behaving differently. I will say, don't expect what worked before to work again.” And that, as ever, will offer opportunities for those businesses that are ready to adapt. “As we always say, one thing that never changes is change.”
Leadership Lessons - Key takeaways from Visa China’s Shirley Yu:
- Communication, communication, communication: To promote this when staff were physically separated, Visa China employees have been using messaging apps to avoid waiting for responses over email. Shirley also asked managers to have a daily meeting with their teams in which they could check on their wellbeing. “Fact-based communications and clear guidelines were critical, and that just calmed everybody,” says Shirley. “They knew what to expect, and what was expected from them.”
- Avoid “meeting fatigue”: As teams have adapted to the new normal, the number of meetings has reduced. Now, Shirley and her colleagues typically keep remote meetings just 30 minutes long. How? The key is to circulate the objective and agenda beforehand, to keep everybody focused, she says.
- Be aware of unintended expectations: Recently, it has been a priority for Shirley to make sure employees did not feel they should return to the office before they were able, particularly since many schools remain closed. “Today, most of the managers are in the office but we didn’t want to create an unspoken pressure. So we consciously communicated: Everybody has a different situation, and if you have to be home, be at home.”
- Change is more than a mindset: A readiness for change is not just about willingness to adapt, but about having the processes in place that can allow it to happen. “It's not about your mindset about where you change, it’s do you have the ability to change,” says Shirley.
1 Sources: Statista, World Bank
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