Piers Alington, CEO of Feedback Ferret Ltd tells us about gathering and consolidating all customers’ feedback from any touchpoint and customer satisfaction surveys into a single reporting platform.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Piers Alington: We are all fine, thanks. My wife and I are now both jabbed with our first dose of vaccine. Two grown-up daughters and partners contracted Covid-19 several months ago but only had mild symptoms.
Everyone at work has so far escaped catching Covid.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Feedback Ferret Ltd.
Piers Alington: I started Feedback Ferret with my business partner Mark Spicer in 1998. Although not a start-up now, we can still remember the excitement of beginning a new venture all those years ago. We continue to try and behave like a start-up now: not always easy to do, but we are still at the forefront of the whole concept of text analysis for customer experience, so it often feels like the very sharp end!
Twenty years ago, we were trailblazers, analysing open-ended customer feedback at a level that had not been possible before, and in particular, providing it as a fully managed service – taking away the laborious, time-consuming efforts for clients, whether doing this kind of work manually or continuously having to train and improve their own text analysis engine. Over the years, we have built the business with some of the world’s largest brands, including General Motors, BMW, Nissan, Volvo, P&O, and The Alzheimer’s Society.
How does Feedback Ferret Ltd innovate?
Piers Alington: Our team of developers is constantly working on new and improved ways to provide more effective actionable solutions to our customers. In technology, it is impossible to stand still. The lexicon (our own ‘contextual dictionary’), which is at the heart of our Text Analysis platform, contains contextual words and phrases which we use to categorise customer comments into topics, themes, and sentiment. This has been developed over 20 years and continues to be crucial to our ability to innovate on the text analysis core application. We are constantly fine-tuning and adding to it to improve and maintain its relevancy. As an example, with the advent of the pandemic, Covid and all its hundreds of related words and variants have all been added to reflect the various spellings and forms from Coronavirus, Covid, Chinese Virus, #COVIDIOTS to Kovid have all been added.
We also co-create solutions with clients to enable them to better extract value from the insight we can extract from their customer feedback.
Increasingly we are integrating with other ‘best of breed solutions to improve data gathering and dashboard reporting as part of the offering. After many years of ‘homegrown’ technology solutions in these areas, we are now integrating solutions such as Tableau as the standard insight and reporting tool for clients. Lockdown has provided some quieter times to develop and integrate these solutions to the platform ahead of the imminent sales growth we anticipate.
Innovation also comes by diversifying into new markets, which perhaps have either not considered text analytics before or those institutions who are struggling to process large amounts of feedback data into any significant insight. We have recently been helping Housing Associations process tenant feedback. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has meant listening to tenants’ concerns is now more than ever at the top of their agenda. We are helping Housing Associations to listen more effectively and disseminate the sentiment and thoughts from thousands of feedback comments.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Piers Alington: We are very fortunate that the majority of clients are in industry sectors that have weathered the Covid lockdown period fairly well. One exception in the travel sector is on ‘pause’ mode until the market returns – hopefully, later this year / early next year, but the rest have been pushing on with ‘Business As Usual’ and keeping us very busy.
If anything, there has been a greater focus on the need to understand what customers feel about their experience in this changed environment, so the insight we deliver from the text analysis has been as valuable for them as at any time.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Piers Alington: We took a prudent decision to trim dividends slightly at the start of the lockdown to maximise working capital. We were cash positive at the start, and we remain in that position now.
There have been no reductions in staff numbers, and no staff have been furloughed at any time. In fact, we went ahead with the decision to recruit a dedicated salesperson in May 2020, soon after lockdown had started, in the firm belief that things would improve. We have a great story to tell, great technology, and a strong financial position to support this move. We felt that not all competitors would be in that position, and we wanted to capitalise on that position.
Like many companies, we have decided to operate entirely from home from the first lockdown. Our long-term strategy is to continue with remote working, and we have dispensed with the overhead of the office. As a technology business working with clients spread far and wide, this was a relatively easy decision that we had been contemplating anyway. Our team has adapted well, and we already had many of the systems in place to facilitate remote working.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Piers Alington: Our technology has been hosted on the AWS Cloud for many years, so there was only a minor change to eradicate a small number of functions running on local servers.
Business operations were already well supported with off-the-shelf comm’s solutions like Slack and Jira, so that has continued unchanged. Like most businesses, Zoom and Teams video conferences have become the norm – a situation we were already familiar with, working with US clients from our UK head office for more than a decade.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Piers Alington: There are a few big players out there as well as off the shelf software such as Google AutoML Natural Language. However, being smaller than many of our competitor’s means we are able to offer a personal and very bespoke service.
Our solutions are tailor-made for our clients and their particular industry sectors – we purposefully don’t cover all markets. Our fully managed service means the quality of results are continuously monitored, and the text coding is improved to ensure high levels of accuracy.
Your final thoughts?
Piers Alington: Covid has been an interruption, for sure. But we are lucky that it has been of minor consequence to the business and to most of our clients.
We have maintained our ‘Business as Usual’ services for clients, we have used the quieter times to get our new sales resource and technology solutions upgraded, and we are already seeing the financial benefits of that with new business gains in the Housing and Retail sectors.